I’ve made this dish a million times. I think it’s based on something I saw Ina Garten prepare on TV several years ago. Every time I make it, I scramble to remember what I did last time, and what I said I’d do differently the next time. I actually wrote this down back in 2013 but didn’t remember to take pictures until this weekend.
I grew up eating the ubiquitous southern-style mac and cheese that’s swimming in butter and thickened with beaten eggs. The texture is somewhere between a cheesy scramble and a carb soufflé. Well, the wife doesn’t like eggs at all, so this version is closer to Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese than anything else. By incorporating a mornay sauce into this dish, I have total control over the flavor and thickness of the cheese spread.
The Best Mac & Cheese
- 1 pound large elbow macaroni
- 4 tablespoons butter (half stick), melted
- 3 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon flour
- 1 quart milk
- 8 ounces sharp (yellow) cheddar cheese, shredded
- 8 ounces Muenster cheese, shredded
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
- Smoked paprika and cayenne to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°. White it’s heating, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the macaroni until just al dente. They’ll continue to cook in the sauce in the oven, so you want them a bit underdone. Strain the noodles and cool them under cold, running water to stop the cooking process. Then place them into a lightly greased casserole dish (I usually divide the batch and freeze half for later).
While the pasta is cooking, heat the milk in a small saucepan. You just want it hot enough to melt cheese, but don’t let it boil or it’ll curdle.
In a larger saucepan (one that’s big enough to hold the hot milk and all of the hand-grated cheese), melt the butter and stir in the flour to make a smooth roux. This is the same way my recipes for chicken pot pie and gumbo begin. Just whisk constantly for a couple of minutes to cook off the flour taste. You’re not cooking the roux to a dark color or anything. Slowly add the hot milk to the pan as you whisk. Be careful of the steam. The sauce will thicken as it gets close to a boil. It’s okay to let it simmer for a minute to allow it to incorporate. Stir constantly.
Next, add the shredded cheese a handful at a time and stir with a spoon until it’s all incorporated into a smooth, yellow-white gravy. You can do this off the heat. Reserve a handful of cheddar to top the casserole dish later if you want. If not, then just add it all now. This is when you season the cheese sauce to taste. Add the salt and pepper. I also like to add a little cayenne (½ teaspoon?) and a dash of smoked paprika for taste and color. A little dijon mustard gives it a very mild vinegar flavor that people notice, but can’t quite place.
Add the sauce to the noodles. At first it’ll seem like there’s way too much sauce, but use it all. Just keep stirring until the sauce is evenly distributed. I like to use the jumbo elbow macaroni because the thick sauce has room to ooze inside the noodles. It takes a couple of minutes of gently stirring and agitating the pan to get the cheese into the noodles.
Bake uncovered in the center of the oven for 35 minutes or until the sauce is bubbly and the top is starting to brown.
This macaroni recipe is best served fresh from the oven. If you have to reheat, it’s best done covered in a 250° oven. When you microwave it, the butter fat separates and makes the whole dish greasy.
I know this recipe seems like a production, especially compared to a box of the instant orange stuff, but it’s really not too difficult. There are several pots to wash afterwards, but it’s really easy to manage after you’ve cooked it a few times. It all comes together at about the same time and you can do the dishes while the mac and cheese is baking in the oven.
I served this with some pulled pork I made using the fuse method. I did an 11½-hour smoke and it turned out to be the the best BBQ I’ve ever made.