I have posted several fun variations on macaroni and cheese here, but I have actually never posted my favorite: just a classic mac & cheese. If you are anything like me, you have searched far and wide for the perfect recipe. For me, this one is it. There are always problems with other recipes I've tried: the cheese sauce is too rich, there isn't enough cheese, it's grainy, or it's dry. This recipe solves all of those problems.
It does use quite a bit of cheese (1 1/2 pounds), but it is thinned out by a combination of milk and chicken broth. You also prepare more sauce than you think you need. Since the noodles are only cooked halfway, they finish cooking in the oven, thereby absorbing the excess cheese sauce. This also uses a combination of extra sharp cheddar and Colby Jack to avoid the graininess. When using cheddar alone, the sauce can be grainy, but the colby jack leaves it silky-smooth. And finally, the flavor is amped up by the addition of garlic, mustard, and just a pinch of cayenne.
This version is topped with a fresh breadcrumb topping, but I also use ritz crackers when I don't have access to a food processor. Both are great, but I personally prefer the breadcrumbs.
I have made this macaroni and cheese so many times that I pretty much have the recipe memorized by now. I have made it and served right away, and stored to bake later. There is no deterioration in flavor, and I love it either way. It really is one of my favorite dishes of all-time, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
barely adapted from Cook's Illustrated's The Best Make-Ahead Recipes
- 1 recipe Toasted Bread Crumb Topping (follows)
- 1 pound pasta shapes
- 6 Tbs unsalted butter
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 6 Tbs all-purpose flour
- 2 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
- 3 1/2 cups milk (low-fat is fine)
- 1 pound colby jack cheese, shredded (about 4 cups)
- 8 oz extra-sharp cheddar, shredded (about 2 cups)
- ground black pepper
Bring water to a boil in a large dutch oven set over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and the pasta, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and leave in the colander.
Wipe the pot dry, and add the butter, and set it over medium heat until melted. Stir in the garlic, mustard, and cayenne, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, until golden, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in the chicken broth and milk, and bring to a simmer. Whisking often, cook until large bubbles form on the surface and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the cheeses until completely melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Stir the drained pasta into the cheese sauce, breaking up any clumps, until well combined. Pour into a lightly greased 9x13 inch baking dish and sprinkle with crumb topping.
Bake uncovered, until the sauce is bubbling and the crumbs are crisp, 25-35 minutes.
To store and serve later: Wrap the dish tightly with foil, and refrigerate for up to 2 days. To serve, bake in a 400 degree oven until the filling is hot throughout, about 40-45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to cook until the crumbs are crisp, 15-20 minutes.
Bread Crumb Topping
- 4 slices white sandwich bread, quartered
- 2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
- 2 Tbs minced fresh parsley
- salt and pepper
Pulse the bread and butter in a food processor to coarse crumbs, about 6 pulses. Spread the crumbs out over a rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring occasionally, until golden and dry, 20-30 minutes. Let the crumbs cool, then toss with parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.