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Macaroni and Cheese Recipe: Create Your Own

Scott Phillips

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 Create-Your-Own recipe 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!

Master Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

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


Finely grated sharp Cheddar

Finely grated Cantal

Finely grated Monterey Jack

Finely grated Gruyère

Finely grated Gouda

Finely grated Comté

Finely grated Fontina

Finely grated fresh Asiago



Choose one accent cheese (optional)


Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano: 1 cup

Finely grated Mahon reserva: 1 cup

Crumbled soft goat cheese: 3/4 cup

Finely grated Pecorino: 1 cup

Crumbled feta: 1/4 cup

Mascarpone: 1/4 cup



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

Finely chopped fresh thyme: up to 1-1/2 tsp.

Finely chopped fresh rosemary: up to 1-1/2 tsp.

Finely chopped fresh sage: up to 1-1/2 tsp.

Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley: up to 1/4 cup Finely chopped fresh marjoram: up to 1-1/2 tsp. Freshly ground black pepper: up to 1 tsp.

Dry mustard: 1 tsp.

Cayenne, Aleppo pepper, or piment d’Espelette: up to 1/2 tsp.

Freshly ground nutmeg: 1/4 tsp.

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

Shells (small or medium)

Penne rigate


Mezzi rigatoni







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)


Blanched fresh peas or thawed frozen peas

Steamed or roasted carrots, cut into 1/4-inch-thick half-moons

Steamed or roasted cauliflower florets

Steamed or roasted broccoli florets

Diced ham: up to 1 cup

Diced proscuiutto: up to 1 cup

Thinly sliced and sautéed scallions: up to 1/2 cup

Steamed or roasted Brussels sprouts, cut into bite-size wedges

Sautéed mushrooms cut into small wedges

Sautéed, drained, and chopped chard

Sautéed, drained, and chopped kale

Sautéed, drained, and chopped spinach

Cooked, diced lobster meat

Diced, cooked bacon: up to 1/2 cup

Diced, cooked pancetta: up to 1/2 cup

Caramelized shallots: up to 1/3 cup

Minced, sautéed jalapeño or serrano chiles: up to 3 Tbs.

Bake the pasta

Transfer the pasta mixture to a 9×13-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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