Is there anyone who doesn’t love mac and cheese? It’s a rare indulgence for me but when I succumb to the craving I admit that I can eat quite a bit of it in just one sitting. Butter, cheese, and pasta don’t exactly make for a low-calorie dish but it’s oh, so worth it once in a while. Since our weather here in Northern Illinois has been on the cool side for August, I took advantage and baked up a big dish of it this weekend.
I’ve played with a lot of variations over the years and have found I really love it with a combination of different cheeses. I’ve also found that adding a beaten egg adds a richness to it, as well as helping bind it together. I started adding the bay leaf after I saw Alton Brown use it and I really like the subtle flavor it adds. I add garlic and onion mostly because I love garlic and onion and again, they really help amp up the flavor. Totally optional.
I don’t usually put a topping on mine but you can top it with a mix of panko bread crumbs and melted butter if you prefer. You can also sprinkle it with or mix in some bacon or, heck, throw in some sliced hot dogs like you did when you were a kid. Browned ground beef, tomatoes, peppers, roasted chicken or pork…you can really add just about anything to it that your heart desires.
Like I always tell you, don’t be afraid to play with your food!
Mine is not a super creamy mac and cheese; it’s a little bolder with a little more flavor than some. Always use the best-quality cheese you can, as that’s how you’ll get the biggest flavor. Also, layering some shredded cheese on the top before baking yields soft chunks of melted cheese that become part of each serving. Yum.
baked macaroni and cheese recipe
- 1 lb. elbow macaroni (I prefer De Cecco, because their noodles seem to hold up better with the combo of boiling and baking)
- 4 tablespoons butter (plus a little extra for buttering the baking dish)
- 4 tablespoons flour (I use white whole wheat flour)
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup finely chopped white onion
- 3 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 tablespoon ground mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 egg, beaten in a small ramekin or bowl and set aside
- 16 oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 6 oz. shredded Gruyere cheese
- 2 oz. aged white cheddar cheese
- (Reserve 1 cup of the mixed cheeses for topping)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
Lightly butter a 9 x 13 baking dish and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350°
In a large stock pot, cook pasta just about 1-2 minutes shy of al dente, according to the package directions (De Cecco is only 5 minutes and I cook it for 4) and drain in a colander. Use a large spoon and toss it around to let some of the steam out.
In the same pot you cooked the pasta in, heat butter over medium heat until melted. Add flour and, using a whisk or fork, whisk together until well blended and smooth. Continue to stir occasionally for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and onion and whisk together well. Let cook about 5 more minutes, stirring often. I know it just looks like a clumpy mess right now, but you’re toasting out the “flour” flavor and starting to cook the garlic and onion in the meantime. You don’t want anything to burn or stick to the bottom of the pan, so stay vigilant.
Add the milk all at once and stir well, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as you do, incorporating everything together. Stir until there are no flour lumps.
Add the mustard, paprika and bay leaf and stir again.
Bring your entire mixture to a slow simmer and then stir every minute or two, being careful not to scald the mixture. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan often, to assure there’s nothing sticking to it. Continue doing so for about 15 minutes. By this point, you should be able to smell the garlic and onion cooking…perfect. You’ll also notice the sauce thickening up just a tad, which it should. It won’t be thick by any means but you’ll notice it gains a bit of “body” to it.
Now, take a tablespoon of your hot mixture and add it to the beaten egg that you’ve set aside in a dish. Stir well. Add another tablespoon and stir well again. Again. Again.
Add your tempered egg to the pot and stir well.
Add all EXCEPT 1 cup of cheese and the salt and pepper.
Continue to stir over a low heat until all the cheese has completely melted and your mixture is nice and creamy. Be careful not to get the mixture too hot.
When all the cheese has melted, stir in your cooked pasta.
Ladle the mac and cheese into the lightly buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cup of cheese.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Voila! Homemade mac and cheese is simply the best. You can also make this ahead if you want and refrigerate it for a day or two. Obviously, it will need to bake longer if you do so.
Here’s a shot prior to going in the oven. I like the extra shredded cheese on top because, as I mentioned earlier. then you get small chunks of cheese as you scoop it out and serve it.
Also, I cook my pasta ahead instead of while I’m making the cheese sauce for 2 reasons:
- I don’t need to worry about the pasta cooking and having to drain it while I’m stirring my sauce
- I really hate making more dirty pans than is necessary. Who’s with me on this one?
Finally, if you are making this ahead and refrigerating it, don’t add a panko and butter topping, until right before you bake the mac and cheese.
Do you have any other additions you love in your mac and cheese?