I’m going to level with you guys – last week was all fun and games with the elaborate frosting techniques, but, much like Icarus, I have flown too close to the sun, and by “flown” I mean “walked” and by “the sun” I mean “the ground”. Did you guys know I walked OUTSIDE? To get VACCINATED? That was a mistake on my part (the walking, not the vaccination). I’m ready for the peg leg. I could switch it out for a wheel when I need to go fast, or a ski in the wintertime. If you have working feet and ankles, give them a little smooch. Moving around is a privilege, not a right.
Long story short, it’s getting very Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine in here. (Grandma Josephine is what I call the pile of sixteen pillows I use to keep this foot elevated.) It’s like for the home stretch (hopefully?) of pandemic quarantine existence I get to do it on Turbo Mode.
So, as I write you this from my 1930’s baby cage, we’re gonna talk about something I don’t have to get up and go make, because I’ve made it a billion times before. We’re making it in the glorious kitchen wing of my mind-palace, which looks exactly like Ina Garten’s kitchen in the Hamptons. We’re making mac and cheese.
You know, originally this was supposed to be a blog about me making interesting new recipes every week and trying things out and failing and exploring and whatnot, but you know what? If it’s just Katie’s Weekly Paean to Pasta and/or Cake, that’s between me and my god.
PLUS this recipe is here by popular demand, by which I mean I posted a close-up of it to Instagram like a month ago and my friend Vivian (hi Vivian!) went EXCUSE ME JUDGE JUDY . GIF and who am I to deny her?
DOUBLE PLUS, it’s about to be barbecue season, and you don’t want to be the guy who brings the Bad Side No One Eats. Although honestly, that is absolutely me trying to game the SEO (hilarious. It’s just the 40 of you lucky souls who keep coming back to read every week, and I cherish you.) Mac and cheese isn’t just a SIDE. It is the MOMENT.
Okay, time for a dance break. Here’s my universal theory of mac and cheese: the easier it is to make, the grosser it is. If you want your mac to be easy, microwave a cup of it in your college dorm room, OR, even WORSE, just OPEN a CAN of it. It’s true, over here the instant mac comes canned, fully made. All you need is a can opener and a complete lack of regard for your mind, body, and/or soul.
Kraft mac and cheese is marginally harder: you have to HEAT the water on the STOVE, you have to mix the little packet of orange dust so there aren’t any dry spots. Minimal effort, minimal results, but at least it resembles food a human would consume. That’s as easy as a not-totally-gross mac and cheese gets. If you want really GOOD mac and cheese, though, you have to make your own cheese sauce.
On the pain-in-the-ass-o-meter, making your own cheese sauce is the rubicon you have to cross to get from “yeah, this is technically food” to “oh DANG. Oh, dang.” It’s the point at which mac and cheese becomes a dish rather than a snack.
Homemade sauce is the beautiful, creamy canvas upon which to paint your cheese masterpiece. Mac and cheese is great because it’s never the same twice – just use what you have, and use a lot of it. When you make your own sauce, you get to make it exactly how you want it.
People add cayenne to their cheese sauce, or sometimes a bit of wine, and both of those are fine and good for adding depth, but I’m a big fan of mustard. It gives you both spice and acid, and a bit of winey, vinegary depth. Mustard is the best. Long live mustard.
Okay, so on the pain-in-the-ass-o-meter we’ve already done the annoying sauce part. And if you’re already going to do something that annoying, you’d better just bake it and get that crispety crunchety crust, too, for contrast. Make it worth your while – that’s what putting it in the oven does.
The only thing better than gooey, cheesy sauce, is the crispy, salty, crackly lid of bubbling cheese and browned noodles that crowns an oven-baked mac. I like to save my saltiest, sharpest cheeses for the topping layer to give the whole thing contrast and balance.
After this point it’s not really possible to make it taste better. People get cute, adding garlic or truffles or lobster, but at that point you’re just making another dish entirely. It’s about the mac, and it’s about the cheese. I have only once approached the threshold of “too much cheese”, and I just added more milk to the sauce and froze two extra cups and it was fine.
I know there are people who like their baked mac and cheese really Stiff and Cubular and I respect that (hi Siobhan!), but I really like it sloppy and saucy and gooey. The great thing about knowing how to make your own mac and cheese from scratch though is that you can Make It How You Like It. This is how I like it:
Essential Mac and Cheese
2 tbsp butter
2-3 tbsp flour
2 c milk
As much shredded cheese as you have – up to 4 cups
1 heavy tsp Dijon mustard
Lots of cracked black pepper
About a pound of short pasta – I love the little elbows in the green cardboard box for a real soft, saucy situation, but if you’re going for more structure, cavatappi is excellent, especially because the twists tend to stick out really well and get crispy on the top
- Preheat the oven to 350f/180c, and butter a large dish of your choice – wider and shallower for more crust, or deep for more goo, it’s up to you.
- Get your salted pasta water on the stove to boil
- Shred that cheese! Get the weird lumps out of the back of the freezer, throw in the cream cheese that’s about to go bad, take all of the feta and the goat cheese and everything and get it in there. Save the brightest/orangest/sharpest for the crusty cheese lid – set it aside separately
- This is one of those recipes where I like to have everything measured out and set up – you don’t want to be measuring out teaspoons of stuff while things are happening on the stove. So, get everything together and ready to go so you don’t have to worry about it.
- In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt your 2 tbsp butter, then add the flour and whisk
- When you’re making a roux, it’s about creating a flour-butter paste that will thicken whatever sauce you make out of it. You have to have enough butter to absorb all the flour, and vice versa, which usually works out to about a 1:1 ratio – I put the extra tbsp of flour up there because sometimes it’s too loose. If there are any dry spots of flour that haven’t gotten absorbed into the butter, add a smidge more butter. You want everything homogenous
- Once you have a paste bubbling away, you should see it loosen up and start to lighten in color. Keep whisking – it will absolutely stick to the bottom of the pan and burn – and cook it for 2 minutes, just until it’s a light golden color and the raw flour taste has been cooked out.
- Add half of your milk in a slow stream – I like to pour it from a liquid measuring jug that has a spout for ease of use – and whisk vigorously. The roux will clump up a bit and then, as it absorbs the milk, everything will start to thicken
- Add the second half of the milk. I do it in two stages because it takes longer to absorb if you do it all at once. Also dumping a bunch of cold milk into a hot pan is a recipe for curdled sauce. Keep whisking, and make sure you really get into the corners of the pan because it’ll stick together down there and start to burn. Use a spatula to scrape out the edges and then whisk in the lumps.
- At some point in here your pasta water will have boiled, so add that and set the timer for two minutes less than it says on the package.
- When the sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon and you can draw a line through it with your finger, it’s ready for cheese. Dump it all in there and keep on whisking! You were born for this. There was a prophecy of old that one day there would come to this land a Great Whisker, who Loved to Whisk, Just Couldn’t Get Enough of It, Wow Just Look At Them Go, and now here you are, the prince that was promised, standing at your stove, and no that cheese isn’t incorporated yet, keep whisking.
- At this point you can switch to a wooden spoon or spatula – your whisking days are over. If there are still lumps, you have my permission to run it through a sieve and move on with your life.
- Time for flavor fine-tuning. Add a good blorp of mustard, just right off the bat. Does it need salt? Black pepper? Something… else that you’re not quite sure what it is? If you answered C, the solution is More Mustard. Don’t worry if it seems like it tastes Too Much – the pasta absorbs a lot of flavor.
- When it’s so delicious you want to take a bath in it, the sauce is done. Your pasta should be done now, too, or almost.
- Drain the pasta, then add your beautiful sauce to it and stir. Taste it one last time for salt and pepper.
- Bravely, heroically pour it into your prepared oven-safe pan instead of eating it all at once, and top with the sharpest, meanest, orangest cheese you have. Or, just more of whatever cheese.
- Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is a beautiful golden brown.