Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Old-School Macaroni & Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese

Traditional Flavor Worthy of Grown Ups 

Macaroni and Cheese may be the ultimate comfort food.  There’s just something pleasing and satisfying about pasta enrobed in a rich cheese sauce, baked to golden goodness.

But the versions of Mac ‘n Cheese we usually eat in the United States are “quick” dishes with less than full flavor.  Harried cooks generally prepare them from a “blue box” or use one of the myriad stovetop recipes available on the internet.

Those versions can be good enough, and many are kiddy favorites.  But they simply can’t compare to the traditional (and somewhat more time-consuming) recipe presented here, which involves making a cheese sauce.

I suggest making this traditional Mac ‘n Cheese on a night when you have an extra 20 minutes or so to spend in the kitchen.  The deep flavor this recipe delivers is so good that I’d proudly serve the dish to company, complete with a nice bottle of wine.

When you think about it, macaroni and cheese isn’t all that different from Fettuccine Alfredo (both contain pasta, butter, milk/cream, cheese — and little else).  And who wouldn’t serve fettuccine on a special occasion?

My Mac ‘n Cheese is so good your guests will come back for seconds.  And probably lick the serving dish clean.

Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe:  Macaroni and Cheese

I use two cheeses in my recipe:  cheddar and Parmesan.  You’ll get the best results if you grate both of them fresh for this recipe.  I use a food processor, but it’s also easy enough to grate by hand.  In a pinch, you can substitute pre-grated cheese from the supermarket.  

You can find recipes for traditional Mac ‘n Cheese in almost any “comprehensive” cookbook. Mine is adapted from one in the paperback version of Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer. This book is long out of print, but you can buy it used through Amazon for as little as $.01 (plus shipping).

This recipe yields 4 servings when the dish is used as a main course, which is how I like to serve it.  I want Mac ‘n Cheese to be the star of the meal, with a full serving that takes center stage on my dinner plate.  If you prefer to use it as a side dish, this recipe will yield 8 or more servings.  This recipe is also easily doubled.

You’ll need a 2-quart baking or gratin dish for this recipe.

  • 8 ounces uncooked elbow macaroni (or another pasta shape of your choice)
  • 3 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups hot milk (see note; I usually use skim milk, but whole tastes better)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ - ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
  • 8 ounces grated cheddar cheese (I prefer sharp, but use what you like; if you don’t want to grate the cheddar, you can cube it)
  • 2 – 3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese, divided 
  • Additional grated Parmesan for a garnish (optional)
Adding hot milk to roux to make white sauce
Adding Hot Milk to Roux

There are 6 distinct activities involved in preparing this recipe: 1) cook macaroni; 2) prep cheese and assemble other ingredients (include heating milk); 3) cook flour and butter together; 4) add hot milk to flour and butter; 5) add cheese to milk mixture; 6) combine milk/cheese mixture with macaroni, put in baking dish, and bake.

I usually multi-task when I make this recipe, and the steps below reflect that. So, for example, while you’re allowing the macaroni to cook (step 2), you can be doing some prep work. When you reach the stage where you combine the flour and butter and begin cooking, however, you’ll need about 5 distraction-free minutes at the stove.
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Prepare the macaroni. Bring a 4-quart saucepan or pot full of water to a boil. Salt the water when it is boiling (use about a tablespoon), add macaroni. Stir so it won’t stick to the bottom of the pan. When water returns to boil, lower heat so the water is just boiling, and allow macaroni to cook while you complete other tasks. Cook the pasta for 7 minutes, and then start testing for doneness. You want the macaroni almost cooked through – it will soften more in the oven. When you judge that the macaroni is done, dump it into a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. (Note: You’ll probably be pouring the pasta into the colander sometime during step 6 or 7 below. If the timing of this seems problematic to you, prepare the pasta first, cool, and hold until you’re ready for it in step 9.)
  3. On medium burner, begin to heat milk. Be careful you don’t scorch it! The goal isn’t to heat the milk to the scalding point (180 degrees), although you certainly can do that. Rather, you want the milk to be quite warm (hot) so it will combine better with the butter/flour mixture you’ll prepare in step 5. Warm liquid makes lumps less likely to form in the sauce.
  4. Meanwhile, grate your cheeses (you can dice the cheddar if you prefer, although I find it easier to grate). Assemble all ingredients.
  5. When all your prep work is finished, on a medium stovetop burner, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 2 to 3 quart sauce pan (a Saucier pan or Windsor pan is ideal). When butter foams (but before it browns), dump in the flour and stir using a wire whisk. Continue stirring for the next two minutes (stirring doesn’t have to be nonstop, but do keep the mixture moving so it doesn’t overbrown). As you probably know, you’ve just made a roux.
  6. Now begin to add the hot milk to your roux. Using a ladle, I usually first add 4 to 6 ounces of hot milk while continuously whisking the roux. The milk will be absorbed into the roux almost immediately. Add another ladle or two of milk, and stir with the whisk. You’ll have a liquid mixture that will be fairly thick. Now dump in the rest of the milk, bring to a boil, and stir vigorously using the whisk. After the mixture comes to a boil, adjust heat so it is just simmering. The reason for the vigorous whisking is to avoid creating lumps from the roux. After 20 - 30 seconds, you can stop whisking continuously, but do whisk every 15 - 30 seconds as the milk fully absorbs the roux and the mixture thickens, creating a sauce. When the mixture is thick, add salt, pepper, optional cayenne pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Stir to incorporate seasoning. You’ve just made a white sauce — or if you want to be fancy and French, a béchamel sauce.
  7. Remove saucepan from heat and add all the grated cheddar cheese and half the grated Parmesan cheese to your béchamel. Stir to incorporate (the cheese should melt into the sauce; don’t worry if it doesn’t melt completely). You’ve now made a Mornay sauce.
  8. Add the cooked macaroni to the Mornay sauce (a 2-quart saucepan should be just big enough to hold it all) and stir to combine.
  9. Using remaining butter, butter your 2-quart baking dish (you can also do this as part of step 4). Spread macaroni and Mornay mixture into the baking dish, and smooth the top. Dust top with remaining Parmesan cheese.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes. I usually begin checking for doneness at 20 minutes — it’s done when the sauce has thickened and the Mac ‘n Cheese is bubbling hot. If the top hasn’t browned as much as you’d like (it often doesn’t), run the baking dish under the broiler for a minute or two to produce a nice brown crust.
  11. Serve and enjoy! You might wish to add additional grated Parmesan at the table to garnish the dish. I usually do.
Adding Macaroni to Cheese Sauce to make macaroni and cheese
Adding cooked macaroni to cheese sauce


  • Cheddar cheese is the classic for this dish.  I always use yellow cheddar simply because it gives the finished dish great color.  (Yellow cheddar is dyed, by the way; in its natural form, cheddar is white).  White cheddar is less colorful, but the flavor will be equally good.  You can also substitute any other good-flavored cheese that you like (but try this recipe first with cheddar).  
  • The Parmesan adds a great, sharp dimension to this dish, and makes a particularly nice garnish at table.  You can omit the Parmesan (many recipes don’t call for it), but I think you’ll miss the extra flavor it delivers.
  • For an extremely rich dish, substitute cream for milk.  Or, perhaps more sensibly, use half-and-half.  This is overkill, in my opinion.  But if you crave unbridled lusciousness, go for it.
  • I like spiciness, so I always use some cayenne pepper.  But you can omit it, or substitute Tabasco sauce.  
  • Ground nutmeg appears in many Mac ‘n Cheese recipes, and it’s a good addition.  I’m often not in the mood for it, though, and usually omit it.
  • Many recipes called for Mac ‘n Cheese to be covered with buttered bread crumbs before being placed in the oven.  I’m not a fan of this, but if you are, feel free to add the crumbs; you’ll enjoy the finished dish all the more.  If the bread crumbs aren’t sufficiently brown when the dish is cooked, just run them under the broiler for a minute or two (being careful not to burn them).
Macaroni and Cheese dusted with Parmesan cheese and ready for oven
Macaroni and Cheese ready for the oven

Call It Maccaroni

We all know the song “Yankee Doodle,” with the line about the chap who stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni. Wikipedia suggests that the song originated with British officers serving in pre-Revolutionary War America, who made it up to mock “the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees’ with whom they served in the French and Indian War.” A doodle evidently meant a fool or simpleton.

At the time, men who wore Macaroni Wigs with long powdered curls were considered fashionable to the point of foppishness — and “maccaroni” was slang for a fashionable person. So that line in “Yankee Doodle” was intended as an insult: Your typical American was so foolish and unsophisticated that he thought sticking a feather in his cap would make him fashionable. Ha, ha. Get it?

So what would those mocking British soldiers say about a modern-day Yank who claims that Mac ‘n Cheese is good enough to serve when company comes calling? Am I just an unsophisticated American hick?

Maybe. But haul out the good china anyway: My posh Macaroni & Cheese really is fine fare.

Call me a doodle if you like. You’ll be playing my song.

Macaroni and Cheese

If you enjoyed this recipe you may also enjoy:
Pasta Puttanesca
Pasta with Tomato and Bacon Sauce
Cheddar Cheese Chicken Curry
Ham, Bacon, & Cheddar Frittata


Sunday's Kitchen said...

I LOVE IT! great recipe, I'll try
thank you ciao from Italy Domenica

Kitchen Riffs said...

Thanks for the comment, Domenica. I think you'll enjoy the recipe. BTW, I love Naples and the area south of there. That's a beautiful part of the world.

Beethoven said...

Dear Kitchen Riffs,
The family cook has me on a strict diet and I don't get to snack very often, but your mac&cheese looks delicious, and I would be delighted to lick the platter clean! I have printed the recipe and am leaving it where the cook can see it. Perhaps she will make it, and I can snatch a few mouthfuls when she is not looking!
Your Friend,
ps - How about a recipe for homemade biscuits? I drool in anticipation.

Kitchen Riffs said...

Thanks for the interesting comment, Beet. For some reason I'm reminded of that old New Yorker cartoon with the caption, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." ;-)

Hannah said...

I've made this recipe for my birthday - I was throwing a dinner party for 20 people with an 'American' theme (not being an American, this was a nice way for me to try out new things). The mac'n'cheese was a great hit - it's very easy tasting food. So thanks for the recipe!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Hi Hannah, I'm delighted that you enjoyed the recipe! Your party sounds like it was a lot of fun. Thanks for taking the time to comment.