This comfort food classic is incredibly easy to make once you have the basics down.
There are fewer more debated side dishes in most American households. Do you top it, or leave it bare? What kind of cheeses are you using? How many eggs, if any?
Here are some simple ways to put your own flair on a traditional baked mac and cheese.
Break free from basic elbow macaroni and try something a little different. Shells and radiatore pasta tend to hold more sauce because of their increased surface area and curves. If you prefer to drier bake that is cut into slices, larger pasta like ziti or rigatoni are heftier and get the job done.
Whatever you use, boil up a full pound of it in salted water to fill a standard baking dish, and keep it on the al dente side. It will continue to soften further as it absorbs some of the sauce.
Photo by Oleg Magni
Here's where most recipes diverge. Southern-style baked mac and cheese has a custard base made with eggs and milk, cream, or even evaporated milk. This is a fantastic recipe from a home cook who uses smoked cheddar for a little extra oomph.
Restaurants and TV chefs tend to use a roux-based sauce made with cooked flour and butter. This is one of my favorite recipes, from Hank's Oyster Bar in Alexandria, Virginia.
For a custard base: Mix 2 cups of liquid (milk, heavy cream, evaporated milk, or some combination of the three) with 4 cups of shredded cheese, reserving some for the top. Season well, and then add in two beaten eggs.
For a roux-based sauce: Melt 2 T. butter and cook 2 T. all-purpose flour in it until a light tan color. Slowly whisk in 2 cups of milk or cream, then 2 or more cups of shredded cheese.
Here's what most people fight about: what kind of cheese you use. Cheddar is traditional, but can be too oily if not mixed with something creamier like American cheese or Velveeta—yeah, I said it. Velveeta. If you're going for a white mac and cheese that looks a little more refined, try mixing in Gruyère or Gouda with a white cheddar.
Whatever you use, shred your own cheese. Not only is it cheaper, but it will also be free of any additives that pre-shredded cheeses have to prevent clumping.
Photo by Waldemar Brandt
Once you've got the pasta mixed with the sauce, spread it out in a buttered baking dish. Take a look at your creation and think about the final product. Should it have a sprinkling of cheese on it for a bubbly, browned crust, or are you looking for a crisp texture provided by a layer of buttered breadcrumbs?
If you go for the latter, you can use a simple mixture of crushed crackers, panko, or traditional breadcrumbs—just don't forget to add some melted butter to it (try half a stick to each cup of crumbs) and a bit of Parmesan.
When you have the topping situation sorted out, bake your mac and cheese at 350 degrees for at least 30 minutes. You can char a crumbed top under the broiler for a minute or so after the initial bake is done. That's it!
- Crumbled bacon, smoked paprika, or using smoked cheeses add an instant complexity to your final dish.
- If you're feeling particularly fancy, try adding some crabmeat with Old Bay or chopped lobster.
- How you spice your base can make a huge difference. Start with your basic salt and pepper, then add things like garlic powder, chives, paprika, or fresh aromatics for an extra kick.
The next time you've got a free afternoon, do yourself a favor and experiment with creating your own mac and cheese. Perfecting this recipe will soon become one of your tastiest rainy day activities.
Do you have a favorite mac and cheese recipe, or some unique tips and tricks? Share them with us in the comments!