Macaroni and cheese may be the world’s most perfect food. Or at least the most perfect food item that doesn’t contain sugar.
Kraft mac&cheese will work in a pinch, but homemade is soooo much better. And while I do enjoy the occasional Gruyere-fontina-cheddar-and-cavatappi (with or without bacon), sometimes you really just want elbow macaroni with ooey gooey cheddar.
A warning about this recipe: it takes a while to make, and it makes kind of a big mess. It also is probably insanely fattening, since it contains a billion pounds of cheese AND heavy cream AND whole milk. And the butter, of course. So you may only want to make it for special occasions. Like Wednesdays.
I am usually not a fan of toppings on my macaroni & cheese, because I feel like bread crumbs can take away from the general cheesiness. But I don’t mind this topping, because the Japanese bread crumbs are much lighter than other bread crumbs, and they are mixed with a bunch of cheese. I am sure it would still be really good without the topping though, so feel free to skip it.
Macaroni and cheese (adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)
Macaroni and cheese sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 3/4 cups whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
4 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar (about 1 pound)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard*
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs, usually in the “international” aisle)
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar (about 4 ounces)
To make the topping: Stir together butter, panko and cheese in a bowl. Set aside. (You can actually wait and make this while the pasta is cooking, if you want)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 3-quart shallow baking dish.
To make the sauce: Melt butter in a large heavy pot over moderately low heat. Whisk in flour and red pepper and cook for 3 minutes — whisking often — to make roux. Whisk in milk in a slow stream, then bring sauce to a boil, whisking constantly (this may take a few minutes). Lower heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, for three more minutes. Stir in cream, cheddar, mustard, salt and pepper. Remove pot from heat. (You will want to stir it occasionally while you are doing the other stuff, so a skin doesn’t form on the cheese sauce)
Cook the macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water (you are supposed to use 1 tablespoon salt per 4 quarts water; I just throw in a few shakes of Kosher salt in) for about 7 minutes, until al dente. Overcooked noodles are bad, people! Keep 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the macaroni.
Stir macaroni, reserved cooking water and cheese sauce together (I use the large pot I boiled the macaroni in) and transfer to the baking dish. Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni. Bake until the top is golden and bubbling, 25 to 35 minutes.
*I forgot to mention the Dijon mustard earlier. This really adds something to the flavor, but I wouldn’t recommend adding any more than two teaspoons or the macaroni will taste too mustardy.