Macaroni and cheese is meant to be indulgent, rich, thick, and carefree. It is meant to be eaten unapologetically, with delight, savoring every bite. This is not an everyday meal, it is an occasional treat so please leave your caloric guilt at the door. Comfort macaroni and cheese isn’t the blue box stuff either. It is far richer, without harboring Velveeta, and a lick-your-spoon-and-maybe-the-bowl-wishing-for-more kind of experience.
If you are looking for a low-fat version of macaroni and cheese, you’ll have to keep looking. After years of trial and error, I have finally come to terms with accepting that macaroni and cheese, at least the delicious kind, is a treat, great once in awhile. And as long as I plan ahead, I can allow myself this guilty pleasure, without the guilt. In fact, I’d trade up dessert for a serving of this mac and cheese!
Comfort macaroni and cheese makes an appearance at my Thanksgiving table every year and is usually one of the first dishes to go. One Thanksgiving, the mister and his sister argued over who got to scrape the bottom on the dish. It is that good. If there is any leftover, it reheats well- it doesn’t get stringy and greasy the way some other versions can get. It starts with copious amounts of cheese enveloped into a thick, creamy béchamel sauce. For a smooth and velvety sauce, you must use chunk cheese and grate it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is coated with an anti-caking agent that prevents it from melting smoothly, usually causing clumps. Trust me, a little bit of work will prevent clumpy messes. It literally took me 5 minutes to grate the cheese by hand. A food processor would make it even easier but mine is out of commission at the moment due to an unfortunate incident related to the attachment piece and the garbage disposal. Long story short: the garbage disposal won so I’ll be grating by hand, into the foreseeable future.The spices add layers upon layers of flavors. And that paprika gives the macaroni and cheese its deep, rich color and adds a smokiness that bring this dish from an average dish to phenomenal. The ultimate secret ingredient is worcestershire sauce. You can’t quite tell what it is, but you take a bite and say “Hmm, what is that flavor?”
The most common mistake for a lot of people is that they overcook the macaroni. Whenever I make a pasta dish that calls for some baking time, I undercook the pasta so it can finish in the oven. Cooking the pasta three-quarters of the way is a fail-proof way to avoid making macaroni pudding. Allowing the pasta to cool for a few minutes also prevents the pasta from drying out while baking because hot pasta tends to absorb a lot more sauce than, say room temperature pasta. The result: creamy, saucy pasta.
- 1 lb elbow macaroni, uncooked
- ⅓ cup butter or butter substitute
- 5 cups milk (whole or 2%)
- ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups sharp cheddar chunk cheese, shredded
- 1½ cups colby jack chunk cheese, shredded
- 1½ cups milk cheddar chunk cheese, shredded
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp paprika
- 1 tsp dried basil
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp black pepper
- ½ cup panko bread crumbs
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Cook the macaroni: bring 4-6 quarts water to a rolling boil, on high heat. Salt the water generously. Add the macaroni and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Stirring occasionally, cook macaroni until al dente, 5-7 minutes. The pasta should have a slight bite to it and be slightly undercooked. Drain immediately, toss with a small amount of oil to prevent the pasta from clumping and set aside.
- In a large pan, add butter and melt on high heat. Add one pinch of flour to test temperature. The flour should immediately start cooking. While whisking continuously, slowly add the rest of the flour, making sure no lumps form. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, until butter and flour mixture turns pale yellow.
- While whisking, add the milk one cup at a time, making sure the mixture stays smooth, without lumps. As the milk heats, the sauce will begin to thicken. Once the sauce comes to a boil, about 5-7 minutes, reduce heat to simmer and continue whisking while adding salt, pepper, nutmeg, paprika, garlic powder, basil, black pepper, and worcestershire sauce. Mix well and cook for 1 minute. Once sauce has thickened, remove from heat.
- Stir in cheese. Continue to stir until cheese is fully melted and the sauce is smooth.
- In a large bowl, add macaroni and sauce and toss until all of the macaroni is coated with cheese sauce.
- Pour into a lightly greased 9X13 oven-safe dish. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, spreading evenly. Sprinkle with freshly cracked black pepper if desired. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20-25 minutes. Remove foil and turn the broiler setting on. Broil for 4-5 minutes, watching carefully to make sure breadcrumbs don't burn, until breadcrumbs are golden brown.
- Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.