When I was a kid, macaroni and cheese was one of my favorite dinners. I suspect that there are lots of former kids out there who would say the exact same thing. Everyone has a different “type” of macaroni and cheese that they favor. I know some people who like it go be gooey, with strings of melted cheese coming off of every forkful. I know some people who like the boxed stuff, neon food coloring and all. Personally, I prefered – and still prefer – the kind of macaroni and cheese that was saucy, not gooey, with a good cheese flavor, like Stouffer’s frozen mac n’ cheese.
The only thing that I would change about the frozen type I used to scarf down would be to add a crispy topping to provide some additional contrast to the dish. I haven’t seen a frozen version that does such a thing, but my homemade macaroni and cheese certainly does. This baked macaroni and cheese is a variation on one of Mark Bittman’s recipes from the book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. It starts with a roux (a mixture of butter and flour) that is used to thicken some milk. I add lots of grated, sharp cheddar cheese to that milk mixture before adding partially-cooked pasta. I rarely have macaroni on hand, so I tend to use cavatappi as a substitute and think that any tube-like pasta works well. I also add in some Parmesan cheese for flavor.
The finished macaroni and cheese is not quite as creamy as the kind I loved as a kid, but it has great flavor to it and I love the crispy topping. Fresh bread crumbs make the best top layer, but crispy panko breadcrumbs will work if you’re looking for more of an actual crunch. As for cheeses, sharp cheddar is always a favorite of mine, although mixes of cheese work well in this recipe, too. If you’re looking for something that is really gooey, try a blend of shredded cheeses that includes a really melty cheese, like swiss or a little mozzarella.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
(adapted from a Mark Bittman recipe)
2 1/2 cups milk
2 bay leaves
1 lb small tube pasta
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp all purpose flour
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 tsp ground mustard
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 400F. Lightly grease a 9×13-inch baking dish.
Bring a small saucepan of milk containing the 2 bay leaves to a simmer on the stovetop. Remove from heat.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil on the stovetop and cook pasta for 5-7 minutes, until a little bit firmer than al-dente (the pasta will continue to cook later in the oven). Drain pasta and rinse well with cold water to stop the cooking.
Using another large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When butter has melted, add in flour all at once and whisk until mixture starts to brown slightly.
Remove bay leaves from milk and add about 1/4 cup to the butter mixture, whisking vigorously until smooth. Add in all remaining milk in small additions, again whisking vigorously until smooth after each addition.
Stir cheddar cheese and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan into the sauce. Stir in mustard, cayenne and salt and pepper, to taste. When the sauce is very smooth, stir in the noodles and turn with a spatula to coat well. Pour into prepared baking dish.
In a small bowl stir together breadcrumbs and remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the macaroni and cheese.
Bake for for 15 minutes, until topping is lightly browned.