Sunday, May 21, 2006

Baked macaroni and cheese

Baked macaroni and cheese needs no explanation; it's the classic American comfort food with the perfect combination of creaminess and cheesiness complimented with a browned, crispy top. If all you've ever had is boxed (or stove-top) macaroni and cheese, you should make this recipe next time you need some culinary comforting.

I learned to love macaroni and cheese thanks to my mom, as it was one of two dishes we would cook together whenever my stepfather was out of town. This recipe is virtually identical to the one my mom and I used to make, and since my SO and I just cooked it today, it's this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post.

1 pound dry pasta (macaroni, penne, pennette, or other)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (plus a bit more to grease the pan)
6 tablespoons flour
3 3/4 cup warmed milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
~1/8 teaspoon (a pinch) cayenne
1 teaspoon kosher salt (plus about a tablespoon more for the pasta water)
4 cups grated cheddar cheese (2 cups for the cheese sauce, 2 cups to put in the pan)

For this recipe you need to cook the pasta and make a cheese sauce, then combine them before baking. We often cook the pasta and make the cheese sauce simultaneously, and it's probably ideal (but not necessary) to time it so the cheese sauce and pasta are done at the same time.

Cooking the pasta
1. Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the pasta (at least 6 quarts), and bring to a boil.
2. Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and about 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Stir immediately after adding.
3. Cook for the recommended time on the package, testing the pasta regularly (by tasting it). Do not remove the pasta until it is al dente (just slightly chewy inside); depending on the brand, your pasta may be al dente before, at, or after the recommended cooking time on the package. Don't cook pasta solely by the time printed on the package. Drain the pasta when cooked; do not rinse after draining.

Making the cheese sauce
0. Heat the milk in the microwave (or in a small saucepan over medium heat), but do not bring it to a boil.
1. Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a small non-stick pot over medium-high heat.
2. Add the flour, and, stirring constantly, cook until the flour begins to brown and starts to smell nutty/toasty (probably around 5 minutes).
3. Add the black pepper, cayenne, and salt, and stir.
4. Reduce the heat to medium low, and add the warmed milk to the flour mixture in three or four batches, whisking constantly until smooth.
5. Once the milk has been added, cook, whisking constantly, for 5 minutes, at the end of which time the sauce should be somewhat thickened.
6. Add 2 cups of the cheese (we often add it in two or three batches) and stir until all the cheese is melted.

Assembling and baking the dish
0. Preheat your oven to 350F.
1. Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9x13" baking dish (we alternate between using a glass and a silicone baking dish; both work well).
2. Mix the cooked pasta and cheese sauce in a large, heat-proof bowl. Test the salt level, and add more if desired.
3. Layer the grated cheese and pasta in the buttered pan, starting and ending with cheese. The layers should be (from bottom to top):
  • 1/2 cup cheese on the bottom of the pan
  • 1/3 of the pasta and cheese sauce mixture
  • 1/2 cup cheese
  • 1/3 of the pasta and cheese sauce mixture
  • 1/2 cup cheese
  • the last 1/3 of the pasta and cheese sauce mixture
  • the last 1/2 cup of cheese on top
4. Bake for 30 minutes at 350F.
5. If the top isn't browned enough for your liking at the end of the 30 minutes, broil the dish for a minute or two. To do this turn your oven to its broil setting, adjust your baking rack so that the top of the dish is about 3 inches away from the burner, and put the dish under the broiler. Keep the oven propped open a few inches so you can watch the top brown, and remove the dish from the oven when it's browned to your liking. Watch the dish constantly while it's broiling, as it can go from nicely browned to charred very quickly.
6. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.


While the title of the recipe is "macaroni and cheese," nothing says you have to use macaroni in the dish. In fact, we often use penne or pennette. White pepper is traditionally used instead of black pepper (since it doesn't stand out against the sauce), but it tastes just as good with black pepper.

This dish reheats well in a preheated 350F oven; just put the remainder in the oven in a baking dish or on an oven-safe plate, and bake until it's warm (~5-10 minutes, but it depends on the mass and surface-area to volume ratio of the amount you're reheating).

If you have a low salt tolerance, you might want to reduce the amount of salt added to the sauce.

This recipe is modified from one in Chronicle Books (2002), though it's functionally identical to the macaroni and cheese my mom and I made way back when. Chronicle Books suggests pouring 1/2 cup heavy cream on top of the dish before baking; we've made it both ways, and find that the cream doesn't noticeably change the flavor or texture of the dish (yes, it's shocking - we've actually reduced the amount of cream added to something). However, if you're feeding the dish to someone who desperately needs calories, feel free to pour it on.


Chronicle Books, ed. 2002. From Our House to Yours: Comfort food to give and share. Chronicle books, San Francisco. p. 63.

[Updated July 8, 2006 to add reheating instructions.]

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