How to Make the Best Mac & Cheese - No. 163
Who doesn’t love macaroni and cheese? Perfect your recipe in time for Thanksgiving and learn the RULES
My daughter has been pretty outspoken about mac and cheese all her life. And when she married the guy whose family considered mac and cheese a vital Thanksgiving side, well, she never missed us or our sweet potato casserole again.
By Kathleen Osteen
MAC AND CHEESE WASN’T SOMETHING I grew up with at the Thanksgiving table. Our family gatherings in Tennessee consisted of the more "traditional" sides of green beans, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and the like. But as soon as I was able, I made it a point to add mac and cheese to the menu.
And maybe it’s not traditional, but who doesn't love mac and cheese?
I have fond memories making this with my sister-in-law in the years before we had kids. Various piles of shredded cheese lay across the countertop after finding random nubs of aged cheeses in the fridge. Most made it into the mac and cheese, but plenty was shoveled straight into our mouths. Okay, yes, there was champagne involved…
There are SO MANY mac and cheese recipes out there, but today I share the one I make for Thanksgiving. It’s creamy, cheesy, and crunchy.
But first, a nugget or two of information
Thomas Jefferson became familiar with mac and cheese after his time spent in Paris. His enslaved cooks—James Hemings, Peter Hemings, Edith Hern Fossett, and Frances Gillette Hern—prepared it for him over the years. And it was popularized by African American cooks who spread the recipe far outside the South.
Leni Sorensen, a Virginia scholar of Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, shared in the Netflix series High on the Hog that James Hemings learned to make macaroni and cheese in Paris. Four years after his return from Paris, Jefferson was paying a duty tax on imported macaroni, according to his Memorandum books. And it’s likely that some of that macaroni was cooked in the kitchen at Monticello where it was called ‘’macaroni pie.’’
In 1807, Jefferson was billed for an 80-pound wheel of Parmesan cheese and 60 pounds of Naples macaroni, Leni says. And Jefferson's last grocery order, placed five months before his death in 1826, included "Maccaroni 112¾ lb."
That’s a lot of macaroni.
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
My rules for mac and cheese are much more simple
DON'T use pre-shredded cheese. PLEASE if you take one thing from this— grate the cheese yourself. It's just a few minutes and it is so worth it. Packaged shredded cheese has preservatives and starches meant to keep the shreds from clumping in the bag. If you want cheese to MELT, shred it yourself.
There are three flavors that make mac and cheese sing: mustard powder, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg. A good mac and cheese uses all three. I like to use freshly-grated nutmeg from Diaspora Co. I'll spare you my *fresh is best* spice rant. But really! Freshen up that spice cabinet because spices dull with age.
I use cavatappi because if you're making mac and cheese just LIVE A LITTLE. The hollow spirals fill with the cheesy sauce, plus the corkscrew design and ridged edges allow more to cling to each noodle. Also, it makes a great toddler-friendly meal—little hands can grab onto the noodles with ease.
Lastly, it doesn’t have to be Thanksgiving to enjoy good mac and cheese. It’s a crowd-pleaser on meatless Monday or any night of the week. Better yet, double the recipe and share a ready-to-bake dish with the new mom down the street.
Everyone loves a good mac and cheese.
P.S. Looking for something sweet to add to the Thanksgiving table? Here is Sarah Jampel’s Apple Cider Doughnut Loaf Cake. I’ve made it three times this week! It’s a versatile sour cream cake with reduced apple cider, and it’s perfect.
Follow me on Instagram for more recipes, weeknight dinner inspiration, toddler shenanigans, and baking projects on a whim.
How do you do mac and cheese?
This Thursday for paid subscribers: New Orleans!
Mother-daughter week continues with a LIST of where to eat/snack/drink while in the Crescent City. I’d like to call it ‘’48 Hours in New Orleans,’’ but we were there far longer than that!
Have a good week. Can’t believe it’s November!
- xo, Anne
AND NOW, THE RECIPE:
The Best Mac & Cheese
Use whatever cheeses you have on hand. Gruyere yields a nice, nutty flavor if you don't have Pecorino Romano. And choose between panko or Ritz for your crumbly topping.
Makes 12 servings
Prep: 30 to 35 minutes
Cook: 25 to 30 minutes
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), plus more for greasing your pan, divided use
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs or 1 sleeve Ritz crackers
Salt and pepper to taste
5 1/2 cups whole milk
1 pound cavatappi pasta, or noodle of your choice
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
5 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
4 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9x13 baking dish with butter and set aside.
If using panko, heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons butter until melted, then add your breadcrumbs and cook, stirring often, until lightly golden brown. Transfer to a bowl, season with salt and pepper and set aside. If you're using Ritz crackers, crush your crackers and pour melted butter over them, stir and set aside.
In the same saucepan you just used, warm your milk and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook your pasta until just underdone - will depend on the pasta you are using - it will finish cooking in the sauce.
For the béchamel sauce: In a large pot, melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter. Once bubbling, add your flour and whisk mixture for 1 minute.
Start pouring in your warm milk, a little at a time, while whisking. The mixture will look like a paste, then it will become gradually more thin. Don't worry - as you keep cooking it will start to thicken back up.
Continue cooking until the bechamel slightly thickens and just starts to bubble, about 6 - 8 minutes. It should easily coat the back of a spoon, but not too thick - it will continue to cook and thicken in the oven.
Remove from heat, add the salt, mustard powder, cayenne, nutmeg, and pepper. Stir to combine. Fold in the cheeses, reserving 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano. Whisk until smooth, then add the cooked noodles and stir to combine.
Pour into the prepared baking dish, topping with remaining grated cheese and toasted panko breadcrumbs or Ritz crackers.
Bake until lightly browned and bubbling, about 25 minutes. (If you desire extra browning you can carefully broil here to avoid over-cooking your pasta.) Transfer to a wire rack for 5 minutes - or straight onto trivets on your Thanksgiving buffet table.
Only other thing I add to the mac and cheese beyond what you have are sautéed vadalia onions, it adds even more depth.
Agree with others, this is a frequent winter meal at our house serves with a large green salad. It refrigerates and reheats well the next few days.
I get cheese ends from a local WI dairy and so have many different versions. Some with Chipotle’s, or spicy pepper jack and even a garlic veggie version.
I think it’s a national icon but I hated it . Not until I tasted the home made variety did I succumb. But Ann, yours is the best! I’ve just made it and it is divine. Thank you and wishing you peace and kindness and tasty things!