Mac n’ Cheese is one of my family’s favorite meals. The funny thing is that not too long ago, the only Mac n’ Cheese I knew how to make was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese from a box, I’m embarrassed to say! This dish is certainly one that brings us all together. One of my favorite things is when we gather at our dining table and share a meal, exchange stories, and make each other laugh and this is the perfect comfort food for that!
Years ago I was talking to a friend who mentioned she made macaroni and cheese for her kids…not from a box. I was amazed to learn how easy “from scratch” is. Over the years, I’ve tried making it different ways, adding meat sometimes and trying different kinds cheese or just sticking with plain sharp cheddar. The quality of the cheese you use is important, but pre-shredded cheese from Kraft or Sargento works great if you want to save some time. Just make sure to buy the fine shredded cheese; it melts better/easier. It’s the kind of recipe, that when you get the “hang of it,” it is very easy to be creative with it and make it your own.
It’s versatile too. You can serve it as a side dish, as a main dish, for lunch, or for dinner. You don’t even have to use the traditional elbow macaroni. Any noodle that is short and tubular or even twisted is great; the cheese gets into the twists and tubes and it’s purely delicious! I have used cavatappi, campanelle, shells, rotini or even penne. Also, a lot of recipes out there call for whole milk. It’s not necessary. We don’t drink whole milk in our home, so 2% low fat works just fine. I do add extra cheese, so it’s good thing the milk is low fat!
I hope you all give this recipe a try. It’s has definitely been enjoyed at my house over and over again. Make sure to read the notes following the recipe for serving suggestions.
Prep and cooking time: about 45 minutes
- one box of short, tubular or twisted pasta, 16 oz
- 8 oz Gruyere, 8 oz. sharp yellow cheddar, and 8 oz Monterey Jack
- 2 1/2 cups low fat milk, 2%
- 2 Tbsp cornstarch
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp ground mustard
- 1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- a decent pinch of nutmeg
- 2 Tbsp butter
- seasoned bread crumbs and panko bread crumbs
- Heat oven to 350º .
- Place a large pot filled with water on the stove, but do not turn it on yet.
- Finely shred the cheeses in a food processor or with a cheese grater.
- Fill a 16 oz measuring cup to the rim with the cheeses. I usually do 3 equal parts, but if you prefer, you can use less Gruyere and more yellow cheddar, for example. I’ve done it numerous ways. You can also just use all yellow cheddar, but make sure it’s packed to the rim. If you do use only one kind of cheese, buy more than 16 oz. size, so you’ll have enough to top it. Set the cheese aside and reserve extra cheese in a small bowl for topping.
- Set the burner where your pot filled with water is and while you wait for it to boil, start your cheese sauce.
- In a two quart sauce pan, place 2 Tbsp cornstarch. Add 2 1/2 cups cold milk and whisk to combine.
- Place on medium/high heat and add salt, ground mustard, pepper, nutmeg, and butter.
- Gently whisk the milk while it heats so it doesn’t brown at the bottom of the pot. Cook, whisking gently and continuously for about 5-10 minutes, until you see the steam starting to come up from the milk and small bubbles start to form on the edge. It should be very hot but not boiling. At this point, you will turn down the heat slightly and continue stirring until it thickens, about an additional 10 minutes or less. Cornstarch needs heat to thicken, so if you turn the heat down too soon or too much, it will not be thick enough or hot enough for the cheese to melt properly.
- Once the milk has thickened, remove it from the burner and add the cheese. Stir with the whisk to blend the cheeses until melted. Leave it off the burner.
- If your water has started boiling, add about 1 – 2 tsp of salt and the pasta and stir it. Once it starts to boil, lower the heat a little so your pot does not over flow and stir it again so your noodles don’t stick together.
- After about 10 – 15 minutes, the noodles should be softened; I like to taste one to make sure it’s soft enough…mac n’ cheese is not an “al dente” pasta. Once it’s tender, drain and place the pasta in a deep, 13 X 9 casserole dish. Pour the cheese sauce over it and mix thoroughly.
- Sprinkle left over cheese over the top, not too thick, but not too sparingly either. Sprinkle with seasoned and panko bread crumbs and bake for about 15 minutes. When you see the edges start to brown, turn the oven to broil and broil for only about 3 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Watch it or set a timer; 3 minutes goes by very quickly and your mac n’ cheese may burn on top!
- Carefully remove and enjoy!
Sometimes I have served mac n’ cheese mixed with crispy bacon, grilled chicken, mushrooms, spare ribs. If you want to make it fancy, you can add in lobster or try mixing truffle butter into the noodles before adding the cheese sauce. If you have pimento cheese in the fridge, you can also cut back on the shredded cheese and use this instead! The possibilities are endless! Be creative! And when I’ve been short on breadcrumbs, I’ve smashed croutons in a zippered baggie and topped it with that!