*cracks knuckles* This may be the most requested recipe ever. I kinda get why…not too many people hate macaroni and cheese. If you do, you might be a weirdo.
Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes that seems super easy to make, but many people can’t get it right. I’ve had so many terrible versions made by others…super soggy overcooked pasta, clumpy bland cheese, dry and flavorless…the list goes on. I didn’t nail my own macaroni and cheese until maybe the 5th time I made it. It does take patience and practice, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it right the first time. It’s totally worth the effort to make again and again. There are 3 distinct ways I prepare my macaroni and cheese. This is one of them. It’s the classic “béchamel (cheese sauce) + pasta + more cheese + breadcrumb” method. You can find this method just about everywhere, and I got my inspiration from watching Emeril Live back in the day. I saw him do it this way and it’s been my go-to method ever since, especially when I’m feeding more than 5 people. It’s super easy to do, but a little intimidating if you’re not used to cooking.
This isn’t some waxy boxed mac-n-cheese, people. This is real cheese. From real cows and sheep. This isn’t processed foolery. If you aren’t used to real cheese, you probably won’t appreciate the rusticity of this authentic bounty of cheesy goodness…ok? Are we clear? Because this is some real sh*t, but before I get into it, here are a few notes…
I absolutely love using pasta with the ridges. Elbow macaroni rigate, penne rigate, and cavatappi pasta are my top go-to choices. They hold onto the cheese sauce better, and have openings big enough for that creamy cheese sauce to seep thru. You can use regular elbow macaroni, but try stepping outside the box once in a while 😉
My usual starting-5 cheeses are Cheddar (any variety), Gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Fontina. Those are my favorite cheeses because they all compliment each other extremely well, and melt together into this harmonious concoction of pure dairy lust. I love adding the Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino-Romano to the béchamel sauce as a flavorful and slightly salty base, then tossing in the other cheeses with the coated pasta to be baked off. Sometimes I only use cheddar and smoked gouda, another delicious pair — especially during BBQ season. Smoked gouda isn’t very creamy on it’s own, so it absolutely needs to be paired with something and cheddar is always a great choice. Sometimes I only use fontina and gruyere — it really depends on what I’m craving. Colby-jack is another great cheese, but if you want dramatic stringy cheese action, try whole milk mozzarella, monterey-jack, provolone, etc. I encourage you to try different cheeses until you find a blend that best suits your ultimate mac-n-cheese experience.
Bland mac-n-cheese is a no-no!
Seasoning, where art thou? No matter what cheese you use, it needs a bit of help with some seasoning. Some cheese are very salty on their own, but that’s about it. You really wanna think about the flavors that compliment cheese overall, and try to apply that to your mac-n-cheese dish. For example, when you order a pizza…the cheese tastes amazing with all of those contrasting flavors — onions, herbs, etc. I love adding shallots, garlic and bacon to a mac-n-cheese dish for a whole ‘nother level of cheesy epicness. You can really get creative and add crushed up onion rings to the top for a sweet oniony crunch on top…man, I’m telling you…mac-n-cheese can take on just about any flavor. Some folks throw in roasted tomatoes, or mushrooms and onions, Italian sausage, or spinach. Open your mind and your palate will thank you. My seasonings of choice are usually black or white pepper, kosher or sea salt, cayenne pepper, onion powder, granulated garlic, a tiny bit of nutmeg and sometimes dry mustard. I like to season the béchamel itself before adding the cheese — just go easy on the salt because cheese is already pretty salty. Once I toss everything together, I taste it again and adjust the seasoning as I need to. Taste as you go, and season every layer!
A note about REAL cheese
Cheese give off oils when heated, so if you try to re-heat you may get some serious separation. That’s honestly because when reheating, you’re just further drying it out — especially if reheated in the microwave. However, reheating in the oven doesn’t necessarily give you better results either. This is why a béchamel sauce helps. The flour proteins help bind things together. It doesn’t prevent separation 100%, but it does help a lot by absorbing some of those oils all while staying creamy and reheating better. Whenever I’m making mac-n-cheese that I know will be consumed in a day, I’ll use half & half, or when I’m feeling super naughty — heavy cream (which is pure fat-assery, but you’d use less than half the regular amount and no roux). Half & half is basically half milk, half heavy cream, so you get the best of both worlds. If using only milk, you’ll still have an amazing dish! I suggest starting with milk first, if you’re new to this 😉
Totally optional, however, I love the crunch of Italian bread crumbs on top of my mac-n-cheese. It creates a crusty barrier full of flavor that cannot be described. You can use fresh homemade bread crumbs, which I only do if I have white bread laying around — which isn’t often. Any variation is bound to be delicious. I almost always have Italian breadcrumbs on hand, so I mostly use that. Sometimes I’ll add panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) to the mix for an even bigger crunch, depends on how I’m feeling. You don’t have to add breadcrumbs on top of your mac-n-cheese, but I promise you it’s delicious and it even helps keep the top layer of your dish from browning too quickly or burning. The breadcrumb barrier also keeps the entire dish moist, so you don’t have to worry about it drying out. The oils from the cheese seep up to the top and help toast the breadcrumbs perfectly. It’s amazeballs, y’all.
The more you make this, the more you’ll be able to gauge just how much of everything to use. I never measure when making this dish, I can just visually “eyeball” everything, but I’ve also been making it for years lol.
*The following photos were snapped at different times, but the method is generally the same…
VIDEO snippet of how I make the white sauce
Oh man…all I can do is shake my head…
- 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 4 tbsp butter
- 4½ cups whole milk, or half & half
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp granulated garlic
- ½ tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- ½ tsp dry mustard (optional)
- pinch of ground nutmeg
- ½ cup seasoned Italian or Japanese breadcrumbs (optional)
- 1 lb dried pasta of your choice (see note below)
- kosher salt (for the pasta water)
- 1 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
- ½ cup pecorino-romano cheese (optional)
- 1 cup shredded gruyere cheese
- 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 2 cups shredded fontina cheese, plus a few pieces cut into cubes
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
- Butter a 9x13 or 8x11 baking dish and set to the side. You can use cooking spray instead.
- Boil your pasta in water seasoned with plenty of salt (about a tablespoon) for about 4 to 5 minutes. You want it undercooked because it will continue cooking in the oven when you bake it. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the macaroni and quickly rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process. Let it sit and drain while you make the cheese sauce. You may not need the reserved pasta water, but it's good to have just in case your cheese mixture gets a little too thick and gloopy.
- In one heavy bottom pot or large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it starts to foam and bubble, add the flour and immediately whisk so that it forms a paste. Allow this to cook for about 1 minute to get the "raw" flour taste out, whisking frequently.
- SLOWLY add 2 cups of the milk (or half & half) while whisking constantly to remove any large lumps. Continue to whisk until smooth and thick, about 20 seconds. Add the remaining 2½ cups of milk (or half & half) and continue to whisk until smooth. Increase the heat to medium-high to allow the mixture to simmer and thicken, about 5 minutes. Season the mixture while it thickens and taste as you go. If the sauce is yummy alone, just imagine how incredible it will be once you add the cheese.
- Once your mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add in the parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino and gruyere cheese and remove from the heat. Taste it again, season if you need to.
- Toss the cheese sauce with the pasta, and taste to season if need be. Don't panic if there's more sauce than pasta, you're going to spoon it into the baking dish, so you'll be able to control the cheese sauce/pasta ratio. As you're layering, it'll start to thicken up even more. On the flipside, if your mixture is too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta water to the sauce coated pasta to thin it out. You want it smooth and creamy, but not incredibly soupy and watery.
- Ladle a layer of the coated pasta into your prepared baking dish, then sprinkle a layer of the remaining cheeses and repeat until all of the pasta and cheese is used up -- lasagna style. This is where you can "eyeball" your cheese portions. Use more or less, it's totally up to you. Too much cheese can be a problem because it'll make it too oily and clumpy, so don't go too nuts with the cheese.
- Run a spoon thru the entire mixture just to lightly mix in the cheese throughout the entire dish. Smooth the mixture with the back of a spoon just until its relatively even on top, and sprinkle a thin layer of seasoned bread crumbs on top for an amazing and tasty crunch, if you'd like. The breadcrumb crust also acts as a barrier to keep the cheese from drying out by helping to keep it moist. But again, you don't have to use it if you don't want to.
- Bake on the center rack of your oven for about 20 to 35 minutes or until the center is bubbly and the entire dish is golden brown.
- Let it cool for about 10 minutes before you dive into it.
- Enjoy, and make this again and again until you nail it ;)
**If you have ANY questions, please don't hesitate to ask. I realize this is an extensive recipe, but once you make it, you'll see how truly simple and easy it is. I want you guys to get it right, so ask away if anything is unclear
***As far as choosing the right pasta goes, try sticking with the more traditional tubular shapes such as elbow, ziti, penne, cavatappi, capanelle, or something similar. Avoid pasta shapes that won't hold onto the sauce well, like spaghetti or linguini, or even small shells in some cases.