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Macaroni and Cheese Recipe: Create Your Own

A creamy, crunchy classic with your choice of pastas, cheeses, and mix-ins

by Tasha DeSerio

from Fine Cooking
Issue 115

Ask any mom: Even veggie-averse kids will enthusiastically eat just about any vegetable when it’s baked inside homemade macaroni and cheese. Who wouldn’t, when that vegetable is tossed with pasta, swaddled in a rich cheese sauce, and sprinkled with garlicky breadcrumbs?

Not only is macaroni and cheese delicious and comforting, but it’s also amazingly flexible. Macaroni somehow earned the title, but any short pasta that cradles the cheesy sauce will work. You can make the sauce with almost any aged cheese, and you can add your favorite herbs, spices,vegetables, and cured meats (or lobster!). I’ve always been a fan of classic macaroni and cheese with Gruyère, fontina, Parmigiano, and a good pinch of cayenne, but with so many options to make it interesting, why not experiment?Baked Macaroni and Cheese is creamy, crunchy, undeniably addictive and easy to customize to your taste: just choose your favorite cheeses, add-ins, and pasta shape, then sprinkle on a crunchy breadcrumb topping and bake. With this Recipe Maker, you can create a very classic version with just pasta, cheese sauce and crumbs, or you can dress it up with vegetables, spices, even lobster!

Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 6


 Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350ºF.

Mix the topping

Coarse, fresh breadcrumbs are the foundation for the mac and cheese’s irresistible crispy topping. Store-bought panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) is a good substitute, but don’t use fine, dry crumbs—they’ll make a flat, sandy topping.

One small clove of garlic, mashed or pressed into a paste is optional. If using it, stir the garlic into 1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) of melted unsalted butter. Put the 2 cups of coarse, fresh breadcrumbs (lightly toasted) in a medium bowl and drizzle the butter over the crumbs. Add a pinch of salt. You can also add 2 Tbs. of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino, if you like. With your hands, toss well to combine. Set aside.

Make the cheese sauce

Base cheeses provide both body and flavor to the sauce, while one optional accent cheese kicks the flavor up a notch. Avoid blue cheese, though, which tends to take over the dish’s flavor, and mozzarella, which can become stringy.

Melt 2 oz. (4 Tbs.) unsalted butter in a heavy-duty 3- to 4-quart saucepan. Whisk in 1-1/8 oz. (1/4 cup) of all-purpose flour and continue to whisk over low heat for 3 minutes—the butter and flour should gently bubble and froth without coloring. Slowly add 3-1/2 cups of whole milk, while whisking constantly. Be sure to whisk around the edges of the pan to get all the lumps. Whisk until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of heavy cream, about 6 minutes.

Raise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and gently whisk in a total of 10 oz. (3-5 cups) of your chosen base cheeses (see options below), one optional accent cheese (see options below), and any herbs and spices (see options below). Season to taste with kosher salt. Keep warm.

Choose one or two base cheeses

  • sharp cheddar
    Finely grated sharp Cheddar
  • cantal
    Finely grated Cantal
  • monterey jack
    Finely grated Monterey Jack
  • gruyere
    Finely grated Gruyère
  • gouda
    Finely grated Gouda
  • comte
    Finely grated Comté
  • fontina
    Finely grated Fontina
  • asiago
    Finely grated fresh Asiago

Choose one accent cheese (optional)

  • Parmigiano-Reggiano
    Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano: 1 cup
  • Mahom reserva
    Finely grated Mahon reserva: 1 cup
  • goat cheese
    Crumbled soft goat cheese: 3/4 cup
  • Percorino
    Finely grated Pecorino: 1 cup
  • feta
    Crumbled feta: 1/4 cup
  • Mascarpone
    Mascarpone: 1/4 cup

Choose up to three herbs and/or spices (optional)

  • thyme
    Finely chopped fresh thyme: up to 1-1/2 tsp.
  • rosemary
    Finely chopped fresh rosemary: up to 1-1/2 tsp.
  • sage
    Finely chopped fresh sage: up to 1-1/2 tsp.
  • italian parsley
    Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley: up to 1/4 cup
  • marjoram
    Finely chopped fresh marjoram: up to 1-1/2 tsp.
  • black pepper
    Freshly ground black pepper: up to 1 tsp.
  • mustard seeds
    Dry mustard: 1 tsp.
  • cayenne
    Cayenne, Aleppo pepper, or piment d'Espelette: up to 1/2 tsp.
  • ground nutmeg
    Freshly ground nutmeg: 1/4 tsp.
  • ground cumin
    Toasted and ground cumin seeds: 1 tsp.
Cook the pasta

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 lb. of pasta (see options below) and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 1 minute less than indicated on the package. Drain well and return to the pot.

Choose the pasta

  • elbow macaroni
    Elbow macaroni
  • pasta shells
    Shells (small or medium)
  • penne rigate
    Penne rigate
  • campanelle
  • mezze rigatoni
    Mezzi rigatoni
  • ziti
  • rotini
  • cavatappi
  • pipette
  • mostaccioli
Combine the cheese sauce and add-ins

Most of these meats and vegetables need some pre-cooking, but are well worth the extra time, so be sure to plan ahead. Cook the meats, if using, and cook any vegetables you choose until just tender. Amounts listed in options are measured after cooking.

Add the cheese sauce and a total of 3 rounded cups of add-ins (see options below) to the pasta and gently stir to combine.

Choose one or two add-ins (optional)

  • peas
    Blanched fresh peas or thawed frozen peas
  • carrots
    Steamed or roasted carrots, cut into 1/4-inch-thick half-moons
  • cauliflower
    Steamed or roasted cauliflower florets
  • broccoli
    Steamed or roasted broccoli florets
  • smoked ham
    Diced ham: up to 1 cup
  • prosciutto
    Diced proscuiutto: up to 1 cup
  • scallions
    Thinly sliced and sautéed scallions: up to 1/2 cup
  • brussels sprouts
    Steamed or roasted Brussels sprouts, cut into bite-size wedges
  • mushrooms
    Sautéed mushrooms cut into small wedges
  • swiss chard
    Sautéed, drained, and chopped chard
  • kale
    Sautéed, drained, and chopped kale
  • baby spinach
    Sautéed, drained, and chopped spinach
  • lobster
    Cooked, diced lobster meat
  • bacon
    Diced, cooked bacon: up to 1/2 cup
  • panceetta
    Diced, cooked pancetta: up to 1/2 cup
  • shallots
    Caramelized shallots: up to 1/3 cup
  • jalapeno
    Minced, sautéed jalapeño or serrano chiles: up to 3 Tbs.
Bake the pasta

Transfer the pasta mixture to a 9x13-inch baking dish and evenly scatter the reserved breadcrumbs on top. Bake at 350°F until the top is golden, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

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