For comfort food on chilly days when fresh spring snow settles on brave early bulbs, nothing beats mac and cheese. I grew up eating a homemade version with hand-grated cheese and still return to a variation of that recipe to fulfill a basic craving. Three features are essential: a roux to thicken the cheese sauce, sharp Cheddar for stronger flavor and a cheese-only topping baked to a golden crisp.
I’ve never gone for breadcrumb-topped mac and cheese. Instead, I spread half of the cheese over the pasta’s surface, where it becomes crunchy in the oven. With that top layer, I actually use less cheese than many classic recipes, which keeps the sauce from turning greasy while baking.
The sauce-to-pasta ratio has a gooey, creamy texture when hot from the oven, but leftovers can be cut like brownies and stuffed into a container for a school or work lunch. Cold mac and cheese never tasted so good. It also holds up as a make-ahead dish: cook the pasta and sauce, spread them in the baking dish and then cover and refrigerate it for a few days if needed. Pull it from the refrigerator and top with cheese while you preheat the oven.
For more zing in this recipe, I sometimes add roasted garlic, home-smoked chili paste or homemade hot sauce. Make this recipe your own by swapping in your favorite cheese or a blend of gooey and strong cheeses. From there, add herbs, spices and even sautéed vegetables for a full-scale pasta bake. Just remember to sprinkle a little cheese on top.
Homemade Baked Mac and Cheese
16 ounces elbow macaroni or other midsized pasta
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese, divided
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta just until al dente. Drain into a colander and then rinse with cold water until cool to the touch. Let the pasta drain completely while you prepare the sauce.
In the large pot, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and mustard and cook, stirring constantly, for about one minute, until golden. Gradually whisk in the milk in a slow stream that is absorbed before you pour in more. Bring it to just below a boil, stirring, and then reduce the heat and simmer for one minute, until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Fold 1 cup of cheese and then all of the macaroni into the sauce, stirring to break up any clumps. Pour the sauced pasta into a 9-by-13 inch baking pan and sprinkle the remaining cup of grated cheese over the top. Bake at 375°F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cheese is golden brown and bubbles at the edges. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Julie Laing is a Bigfork-based cookbook author and food blogger at TwiceAsTasty.com.
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