This recipe comes straight from one of our Cheesemongers, Thomas! Make sure you check out our Mac and Cheese episode of Cheese the Day, the North Coast Co-Op Podcast!
At its most basic, mac and cheese is just pasta and cheese sauce. So the two major steps in making any mac and cheese are to boil the pasta, and make a cheese sauce. We’ll also be baking this one, which makes for a more luxurious and comforting cheese experience.
We’re going to assume that you can handle the pasta side of things. A standard cheese sauce is VERY simple. Make a roux, use it to thicken some milk, season it, gently melt in the cheese. Chances are decent you’ve made mac and cheese ten million times and are only reading this for cheese master secrets! So afterwards, we will discuss how this portion of the recipe can be varied almost infinitely.
This recipe is for a VERY basic mac and cheese. People do all kinds of things with bacon bits, panko breadcrumbs, and all manner of other additives. We’ll leave those out for the most part, but if Thomas is melting cheese, or eating pasta, he almost always includes some garlic somewhere. Melting cheese and having pasta in one dish makes garlic pretty close to mandatory for him, so he’s insisted on listing garlic as a mandatory (adjacent) ingredient.
- ½ lb uncooked elbow macaroni, about 1 ½ cups
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups milk, any kind
- 3/4 cup half and half
- 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese *
- 1 cup shredded gruyere cheese.
- (Optional) 6-12 cloves of freshly minced garlic
- (Optional) Bacon
- (Optional) Onions
- (Optional) Panko
- (Optional) Pesto
- (Optional) Shaved Truffle
- (Optional) Gold Flakes
Preheat your oven to 325.
Shred your cheese and set it aside. (Feel free to look at it longingly at this stage, or eat a few stray shreds as chef snacks.)
Boil the Pasta
Following the manufacturer’s directions, cook the pasta to al dente (al dente is important, see notes below).
Drain and set aside. (Or if you want to feel accomplished, or look more impressive to any witnesses, cook the pasta and cheese sauce at the same time, so you can show off your smooth multitasking abilities.)
If you do this step separately, you’ll probably be bored while the pasta is boiling. Take this moment to grease up a square baking dish.
Make the Cheese Sauce
Over medium heat melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour. Cook while stirring this mixture for two minutes to make the roux.
Use a saucepan large enough to contain the cheese sauce and the pasta. These have got to get mixed at some point, and it may as well be in a pan large enough to hold them both comfortably.
Slowly pour in the milk and half and half while stirring. Season with the salt and pepper.
Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes
This is where you can add in some garlic if you’re using the Mandatory (Adjacent) ingredient list.
Remove from heat and add the cheese about two thirds of our cheese, stirring it in to melt. (The remaining third is for topping. Whether you want that to be mostly cheddar, or mostly Gruyere or an even mix is between you and your cheese. It is deeply personal choice.)
Bake it Up!
Lightly grease a square baking dish if you haven’t already.
Combine pasta and cheese sauce.
You can have followed our advice and planned ahead by making the cheese sauce in a pan large enough to accommodate the sauce and the pasta.
Or you can do what millions have done before you, and forget to think of it earlier, and rather than dirtying a mixing bowl, choose to combine the pasta and the sauce in the baking dish, and hope you don’t spill too badly while mixing. This is real rubber hits the road cooking. It is not pretty, but it will give you a humanizing story to tell.
Top with the remaining cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the topping cheeses are melting in a very enticing way.
Don’t burn yourself! That mac and cheese is probably 325 degrees now! And macaroni is a very insulating material. Proceed carefully.
- Use any cheeses you like or have on hand. If you love camembert, it’ll probably make great mac and cheese! You may have to use less or more milk to get the sauce to the consistency you like, and you may have to adjust the salt up or down as well. But go wild and run free! There are thousands of cheeses in the world. Most of them will be great in your mac and cheese!
- We asked you to shred your cheese in advance and add it to a sauce that has been pulled from the heat because slowly warming cheese is the best way to melt it. Cheese likes to take things slow and easy. You will get a higher quality cheese sauce this way.
- If you have the option, shred your own cheese! Pre-shredded cheese typically has less flavor and more additives. It’s also generally more a little more expensive for the same volume of cheese.
- Al dente pasta that finishes cooking in the oven will absorb more of the flavor of the cheese sauce. You can play with this by undercooking your pasta even further and baking longer. It often helps to add a bit more liquid to your cheese sauce as well, diffusion happens faster with a greater difference in moisture levels. The texture of the pasta, and the balance of the flavor will change as you adjust the variables of pasta cook time, oven cook time, and liquid in the sauce.
- The sauce in this recipe made from a roux with lightly seasoned milk is a basic white sauce. Also known as Béchamel, it is one of the five French Mother Sauces. And you’re a tiny bit fancier being able to say you base your mac and cheese on Béchamel, because it’s your favorite for the mother sauces. (Yeah, you’re that person now.) But aside from letting us feel fancier than we are, there is another great reason to be familiar with the other mother sauces. Nothing is stopping us from making mac and cheese using a different base sauce. It’s very worth trying out all 5! Again, run free and go wild!