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Classic Mac and Cheese

January 27, 2011

Like it is for so many people, mac and cheese is a comfort food for me, but not for the reasons you might expect. I wasn’t given homemade mac and cheese as a kid – I’m sure it fell prey to the “inedible health food” craze of the 80s and early 90s. Hopefully the Cooking Light cookbooks have improved since then, but just seeing the company logo still makes me shudder.

It wasn’t until college that I came into my own as a cook. In an environment where most people live on boxes of Kraft or Annie’s, mac and cheese was one of the early dishes that showed me how much better something can be if you take the time to make it properly. It’s a dish with so many ready-made options: boxed, frozen, a KFC side-dish, but none of them comes close to the real thing.

The real thing, however, does take time. As I was typing up the recipe, I lost track of how many times I wrote the word “stir” or “stirring.” All I can say is that it’s well worth the effort. I’ve tried faster homemade methods – adding thickeners, making it on the stove instead of baking it – but none of them achieve the creamy texture of this simple, well-made cheese sauce.

It’s become hip to make mac with all kinds of fancy cheese, but I’m a fan of plain old Cheddar. For all of the complaints about British food, I think most can agree that the Brits do Cheddar very, very well. Even in a corner-store here, you’ll see a half-dozen varieties, and the number of Cheddars in a specialty store are hard to count. Unfortunately for me, it is white instead of the orange of American Cheddar, but you can’t have everything.

You know a recipe is good when it starts with melting butter. Stir together equal parts butter and flour for a few minutes over medium low heat until you have a nice, smooth roux.

Add in milk and stir to combine. This will look pretty weird at first, but eventually it’ll start to thicken.

Toss in the “secret” ingredients: paprika, mustard, nutmeg and a bay leaf.

And the not-so-secret ingredient: finely minced onion. Let this simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.

After that, it’ll be even thicker.

Stir in a whole lot of cheddar cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Be forewarned: I’ve been known to get excited at this stage and forget to taste it.

Sometime during this process, you will have made 2 cups of pasta, al dente. I used rotini, which have nice little grooves to hold the cheese sauce. You could be a purist and use on elbow macaroni, which have the advantage of storing sauce in their little innards.

Stir in cooked pasta and transfer to a baking dish. I prefer a deep casserole dish, but this worked just fine.

Sprinkle even more cheese on top, followed by buttered bread crumbs. This is a great way to use up the heels of your bread loaf.

Bake for about 30 minutes until the bread crumbs are golden brown.

Serve with some nice fresh veggies.

Mac and Cheese

Serves 4-6

2 cups dried pasta, cooked al dente (elbow macaroni, rotini, penne, etc)
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
¾ teaspoon ground mustard
½ teaspoon paprika
teaspoon (scant) nutmeg
½ cup white or yellow onion, finely minced
2¼ cups cheddar cheese, shredded
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup (scant) bread, diced into small cubes
1 Tablespoon salted butter for bread crumbs, melted

1. Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C.
2. Melt ¼ butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 1-3 minutes until smooth.
3. Add milk and continue to cook, stirring, until the mixture starts to thicken, 5-10 minutes.
4. Add bay leaf, mustard, paprika, nutmeg and onion. Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. Meanwhile, prepare bread crumbs and drizzle with melted butter. Stir to evenly coat the bread and set aside.
6. Reserve ½ cup of the cheese and stir the rest into the white sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.
7. Stir in pasta and transfer to a buttered baking dish (7″ x 11″ or a 1.5 Liter casserole dish)
8. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the top, followed by bread crumbs.
9. Bake until bread is golden brown, 25-30 minutes.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Aunt Chrissy permalink
    January 27, 2011 11:33 pm

    yes, maam…I do so want to eat this RIGHT now.

  2. Cath permalink
    January 30, 2011 5:11 am

    sounds really yummy. . .

    just wanna ask if i can remove the nutmeg, bay leaf and mustard. . .

    would that still be good? it’s due to thrifty purposes hehe^^

    • January 30, 2011 10:36 am

      Go for it. The beauty of mac and cheese is that it’s open to all kinds of variations.

      If you’re worried about cost and don’t have the spices already, you can also try 1/4 teaspoon of prepared mustard from the ole squeeze bottle.

      I’m pretty attached to my spices, but that’s really just a personal choice. If you want to leave those out, make sure to taste it once the sauce is done, and flavor it with what you have on hand.

      One warning, I have tried adding extra cheese, and once you get past 2 1/2 cups or so, it doesn’t taste great anymore – you just get a block of cheese with pasta in it.

      • Cath permalink
        February 17, 2011 2:41 pm

        ah, thanks for the added info. . .

        what if i use about more than 1 1/2 (approx.) cup of cheese, would that still be okay?

        i’m a bit worried if it would still turn out right with about 1/2 kilo of pasta^^

      • February 17, 2011 6:52 pm

        If I’m doing my math right, 1/2 kilo of pasta is more than twice as much as the recipe calls for, so you’d need to double the rest of the ingredients as well.

        Regardless, my advice is pretty much the same as with the spices: taste the sauce before you put it into the oven and see how it is.

        Good luck!

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