I was out of town with friends this weekend, and we got onto one of my favorite topics of conversation: “What would you eat all the time in a consequence free world?” I eagerly shouted, “Macaroni and cheese!” While there is definitely a long list of other answers to this question, macaroni and cheese ranks high. Kraft’s blue box, Annie’s shells, homemade creamy stovetop or crispy baked – I’ve never met a macaroni and cheese recipe that I haven’t eagerly devoured.
While I love them all, I do have favorites. One of my go-to macaroni and cheese preparation methods starts with a roux. If you don’t know what a roux is, it’s a great cooking basic to know. It’s a blend of melted butter and flour (usually in equal parts) and it works as a natural thickener for soups and sauces, such as gumbo or bechamel. In this case, it’s the thickener for our velveety cheese sauce (can we say homemade Velveeta?). Plus, starting with a roux allows us to use lower-fat milk and less cheese since we have a natural thickening agent. You are more than welcome to use whole milk and all the cheese you want, but I like to keep it light so I can indulge more frequently, with just a few [worth it] consequences.
This preparation also gives you the flexibility of eating this straight off the stove or poured into a baking pan (or mini-pans like the photo above) and topped with panko for a baked option. Let your tastes and the time you have guide your decision. I also like to use fresh pasta for this. It makes it feel so much more special. Plus, it cooks a lot quicker than dried pasta and makes this dish come together almost as quickly as the boxed variety. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have a stash of Annie’s in my pantry for when I HAVE to have macaroni and cheese and find myself sans cheese. I like to be prepared for emergencies.
- Fun shaped pasta, fresh or dried (e.g., shells, elbow macaroni) - ¾ lb.
- American cheese - 4 oz.
- Another type of cheese (e.g., cheddar, Havarti, smoked gouda, gruyere, parmesan, or cheese blend) - 4 oz.
- Butter - 2 tbs.
- Flour - 2 tbs.
- Milk (any type) - 2.5 cups
- Paprika (optional) - ½ tbs.
- Dijon mustard (optional) - ½ tbs.
- Panko - (optional) - ½ cup
- Thyme (optional) - 4 sprigs
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees (if you plan on baking)
- Bring water to boil for pasta. When water boils, salt heavily, add pasta, cook till al dente, and drain
- Meanwhile, grate cheeses or chop into smaller cubes for easier melting
- In a >5 quart Dutch oven, melt 2 tbs. butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour to form a roux. Cook butter and flour until it's a light brown
- Pour in milk, whisking it into your roux. Bring to a light boil, but be careful to not let milk spill out of your pot
- The milk should be thick and creamy at this point. Add in your cheeses, paprika, and Dijon mustard. Whisk or stir until melted and it forms a creamy cheese sauce
- Toss with your pasta. Eat fresh of the stovetop or if baking, pour into a 9x9 baking dish (or individual dishes). Mix panko with thyme leaves. Sprinkle panko over your mac 'n cheese and bake for 15 minutes
- American cheese is a great melting cheese, which is why I typically like to include it. Feel free to use your own favorite cheese combination
- Get kids involved. Kids will love helping with the cheese sauce and seeing it come together
- Need an idea for a vegetable side dish? Make these green beans while your macaroni and cheese is baking