So this feels a little bit like that time you ghosted a friend and then ran into that person at the store. Speaking hypothetically of course. That awkward and non-confrontational hello and then the small talk. Ok let’s not do that. Let’s just get it out of the way. Sometimes we just need a break. And sometimes you just have to take a break and live your best life until you can come back. That explains my absence (again). One of my goals this year is to pick this blog back up and bring you recipes regularly. I still enjoy creating new things but I had just gone down the rabbit hole of writing and rewriting then setting things aside for life stuffs. But I’m back and ready, awkwardness be damned.
Over the year, one thing I’ve really gotten attached to is my Instant Pot and making simple foods in it. Specifically, mastering this Instant Pot macaroni and cheese. And when I say I’ve mastered it, I mean I have cooked it 1,001 times in the last year, with every combination of ingredients possible and have come up with this foolproof, kid-friendly mac and cheese. That’s not something I take lightly. I have made this mac and cheese for so many adults and children, from basic creamy, cheesy mac and cheese where the cheese just drips off the spoon to the I’m a grown-up and love to eat things like lobster mac and cheese. And lots of in betweens too, with all kinds of cheeses. Do you want to know more? Read on.
Friends, I have found the secret to extra creamy, nephew approved mac and cheese. My nephew, the mac and cheese snob, also the guy I have the softest of all soft spots for, LOVES creamy mac and cheese. He will take all the extra creaminess he can get. So I set out to get a thumbs up from him, which is no small feat. But over the year I found that secret: Cream cheese. Simple, inconspicuous cream cheese cheese from the refrigerated section of your grocery store that you can spread on bagels or use to make cheesecake. Remember the brick, hiding in the back of your fridge? Go ahead grab that one (make sure it isn’t expired first, true story). Now get ready to have one of the most basic comforts of life, that can only be found in a bowl of oodles of noodles and creamy, luscious, velvety sauce. It’s a revelation– it speaks to me (and here’s to hoping it’ll make you see the light too). And always, always, ALWAYS lick that spoon at the very end. It’s one of my joys in getting to the bottom of a bowl of hot mac and cheese. But if you want to up your game and lick the bowl too, go right ahead, friend. I will be in awe of you as you let go of your adult responsibilities and revel in your lost childhood.
Let’s get real. I’ve been trying to clean up our eating habits for a while now and I feel better about feeding my family this version of a comfort classic. Especially because it takes less time making my version than it does to make the boxed version. Also because, I can’t for the life of me, figure out how to cut open a packet of powdered cheese without getting half of it all over myself. If you ever figure that secret out, please let me know. Anyways, back to my simplified mac and cheese. While the pasta comes to pressure, go ahead and shred that cheese. If you want to pull out the food processor to shred it, bonus points for you, but I’ll be hanging out over here, with my box grater, making sure I don’t grate a finger or two. I highly recommend using unshredded blocks of cheese because the pre-shreds don’t melt as well and leave a gritty taste.
Still not convinced? Let’s go over the fundamentals of mac and cheese:
- PASTA: Use a pasta that has grooves the sauce sticks to, like elbows or shells. Or if you’re feeling extra fancy, try cavatappi (with lobster!). And if you feel grown-up and healthy(ish), use whole wheat pasta. I prefer cooking the pasta al dente, or until the pasta has a bite to it but is still tender. I started off cooking the pasta, under pressure for three minutes but the pasta was too well done or me, especially if you make the mac and cheese in advance and let it sit in the sauce for more than 10-15 minutes. There are few things worse than mushy pasta. PASS. One minute gave me a firm bite, which will continue cooking, even after you release the pressure and makes for a much better reheating and keeping warm situation.
NOTE: if you use whole wheat pasta, you’ll have to increase the cook time for your pasta and your pasta will have a firmer bite, even after it’s been cooked well. Take the amount of time time you boil the pasta, according to the package directions, divide it in half and subtract one minute and you have the amount of time you want the pasta cooked under pressure.
- SAUCE BASE: You’ll need a liquid that has some fat so the sauce stays smooth and doesn’t separate like some lower fat versions can. This is why stovetop recipes usually start off with a flour base. For this mac and cheese, I’ve used every kind of liquid from 2% milk to heavy cream. While the heavy cream is the best binder, it is also heavily decadent and a little too rich for me. I found that whole milk has the perfect consistency, combined with the rich pasta water and butter. 2% milk works but the sauce tends to be lighter and doesn’t stick to the pasta as well. Fat-free milk? Doesn’t work and leaves the sauce too grainy for my taste.
- CHEESE: you don’t need to go out and get the $20/ounce truffle infused cheese (hello cheeseboard!), unless you’re so inclined to snack on it while making mac and cheese. Grab the bricks from the refrigerated cheese section, you know next to all the deli slices. You’ll want to balance the grainy cheeses (like sharp cheddar) with more mild and melty ones like monterey jack. But the key ingredient that pulls this sauce together is the cream cheese. Seriously guys, cream cheese. I’ve tried both the full fat and reduced less fat versions. The fat-free one has too many stabilizers and doesn’t keep it together enough for me to use it.
- ADD-INS. This mac and cheese is such a basic recipe that you can add in so many different things:
√ broccoli & grilled chicken
√ sun-dried tomatoes & spinach
√ buffalo sauce and blue cheese crumbles (don’t forget the ranchy drizzle!)
√ cajun seasoning & hot sauce
√ lobster and extra sharp Vermont cheddar (my personal fave)
This list is epicly endless. For real.
Seriously, I feel like I’ve gone from having the creamiest mac and cheese goals to living my best mac and cheese life. And you bet, once I’m off this round of whole30, I’ll be back for more mac and cheese happiness. And I’m hoping you will be too.
- 1 lb pasta (elbow or shells)
- 4 cups water
- 2 tsp salt (I use kosher, use less for table salt)
- 1 tsp ground mustard powder (optional)
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 1 cup whole milk (use up to ½ cup more if you want more sauce but adjust the salt accordingly)
- 4 oz cream cheese (1/2 cup)
- 2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded (I shred the cheese myself)
- 1 cup monterey jack cheese, shredded
- Add pasta, salt, mustard powder (if using) and water to the Instant Pot liner. Stir to make sure salt dissolved. Cover, switch pressure valve to seal. Press the manual setting, select high pressure, and adjust the time to 1 minute (for al dente) or 3 minutes (for well done). Bring to pressure and quick release the pressure once done cooking.
- Select the saute function on high and add cubed butter and milk. The butter should melt almost immediately. Stir in the cream cheese and allow the cream cheese to melt completely, about 45 seconds to a minute. Add the shredded cheese and melt completely. Turn the Instant Pot off and serve immediately.
TO REHEAT: simmer ¼ cup milk with desired amount of mac and cheese. The pasta should become creamy. Be sure to adjust salt as you may need to add more.
STOVETOP DIRECTIONS:Cook pasta according to package directions, or until slightly firm. Drain and return to pot on low heat. Add salt, mustard powder, butter, and milk and allow milk to start simmering. Add in cream cheese and melt. Take off of heat and add cheddar and monterey jack cheese and stir until cheese melts completely. Serve hot.