Although my comfort food list includes a lot of nontraditional dishes, like crepes and Hot and Sour Soup, I’m a sucker for homemade mac and cheese. It was a household standard when I was growing up. As little girls, my sister and I sometimes begged for forbidden junk foods, but we were always willing to go homemade when it came to Mom’s baked macaroni. I’d take leftovers to school to eat cold for lunch, not caring what my friends thought. It was that good.
Over the years, I’ve come to love other flavors in my baked noodles: the bite of garlic and dry mustard, a burst of flavor from cherry tomatoes and basil, and always extra-sharp Cheddar. Since I started making cheese, it’s been my preferred way to use whey. But my mom’s original version is perfect for introducing kids—and adults—who’ve only had boxed macaroni & cheese to the real deal.
Childhood Mac and Cheese
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup unbleached flour
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups milk
2 cups Cheddar, grated
In a large pot, cook the pasta al dente according to package directions. Drain into a colander and then rinse with cold water until it stops cooking. Let the pasta drain completely while you prepare the sauce.
Prepare a roux by melting the butter in a large saucepan. Stir in the flour, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute, until golden. Gradually whisk in the milk, adding it in a slow stream that is absorbed before you pour in more. Bring it to just below a boil, stirring, and then reduce the heat and simmer for 1 minute, until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat.
Fold half of the cheese and the macaroni into the sauce, stirring to break up any clumps. Pour the sauced pasta into a 9-inch square or larger baking dish and sprinkle the remaining grated cheese over the top. Bake at 375°F for 15–20 minutes, until the cheese is golden brown and bubbles at the edges. Cool for 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4–6.
Tips & Tricks
- Mom’s recipe uses a high ratio of flour to butter, which is guaranteed to thicken the milk but could leave a floury taste and feel if the roux isn’t cooked to golden and mixed in well. If you dislike the texture, cut back on the flour and bump up the butter to 6 tablespoons each.
- When I was really young, my mom always made this dish with a medium cheddar, which my dad and probably us girls preferred. But as we grew older and became cheese fans, she began using sharper Cheddar in the dish. Go as big as you dare with your family.
- Although some mac and cheese recipes use a breadcrumb topping, at my house we always just piled on more cheese; breadcrumbs were reserved for true casseroles. That crusty top layer of cheese really made the dish, so give it a try before switching it to bread.
- If you aren’t yet a cheesemaker with an excess of whey, you can add the more grownup flavors from Cheesiest Mac and Cheese to this dish. Better yet, add some tomato, basil, onion, and balsamic vinegar (see below).
Twice as Tasty
My mom’s 75th birthday coincided with a gathering of friends at a lodge in the Cascade Mountains. What started as a quartet of guys hanging out in college now extends to 3 generations, with bonds in some senses that are closer than family. When you’re celebrating with nearly 3 dozen people ranging in age from a few months to 75 years, the dinner plan needs to be delicious yet easy and have something for everyone. My sister and I decided on variations on mac and cheese.
One of the most popular of the night mixed tomatoes and fresh basil into the noodles and drizzled balsamic vinegar over the entire dish. To the pleasure of my taste testers, I’ve been adapting that first recipe in stages since the party until I hit upon a version I can make from the freezer or from the garden. (We also made more than 70 cupcakes with a half-dozen filling and frosting variations that I’ll share someday.)
Tomato–Basil Mac and Cheese
1-3/4 pounds frozen cherry tomatoes, defrosted
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 1-ounce cubes Basil Pesto Base, defrosted
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup grilled and frozen onion, defrosted and chopped
2 cloves Roasted Garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon Home-Smoked Chili Paste or sriracha
1 teaspoon dry mustard
6 tablespoons unbleached flour
1 cup milk
8 ounces cheese, such as extra-sharp smoked Cheddar (about 2 cups when grated)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 tablespoon maple syrup
In a large pot, cook the pasta al dente according to package directions. Drain into a colander, rinse with cold water until the pasta stops cooking, and then drain again and return to the pot. Drain the tomatoes through a colander, collecting the juice in a medium glass measuring cup; mash the tomatoes lightly with a fork or squeeze them with your hands to drain out additional juice. Mix the tomato solids into the pot, along with the smoked paprika and pesto. Set aside 2 cups of the tomato liquid, adding a bit of water if you’re short.
Prepare a roux by melting the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, chili paste, and mustard and cook over medium heat for about 30 seconds. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute, until golden.
Whisk the tomato liquid and then the milk into the roux, adding it in a slow stream that is absorbed before you pour in more. Allow it to a simmer as you whisk, with large bubbles forming on the surface as the mixture thickens, cooking for 5–8 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and let the sauce rest about 5 minutes. Add half of the cheese and stir to melt and combine. Add the sauce to the pot of pasta, folding to mix thoroughly.
Pour the pasta into a 9- by 13-inch baking pan or two 9-inch square baking dishes, and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Bake at 425°F for about 25 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes.
Bring the balsamic vinegar and maple syrup to a boil in a heavy saucepan or skillet. Cook over medium-high heat for 10–15 minutes, until reduced by half, stirring occasionally. Drizzle the reduction over the cheesy baked pasta just before serving. Serves 6–8.
Tips & Tricks
- Although Childhood Mac and Cheese is simpler to make, it’s also far less complex in flavor. For an even greater flavor boost, make this dish in summer with fresh ingredients: cherry tomatoes, basil, onion, garlic. For more of a roasted flavor, grill the same weight of larger tomatoes.
- Don’t skip the tomato-draining step; otherwise, your mac and cheese could be soggy. If you’d rather use Vegetable Stock, you can save the tomato juice for a beverage, such as shrub or, if you’ve grilled the tomatoes, Bloody Marys.
- If you’ve recently made cheese, you can reduce the whey to sauce and make the same béchamel variation used in Cheesiest Mac and Cheese. Simply substitute the whey sauce for the milk and leave out the cup of grated cheese for the sauce—if you want.
- It’s easy to overcook a balsamic glaze and turn it into burnt hard candy that won’t leave the pan. The liquid should only be reduced until it lightly coats the back of a metal teaspoon.
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