Not to brag, but this is the recipe that has changed many hearts and minds about what “macaroni and cheese” really means. After just a bite or two, naysayers and pooh-pooh-ers alike have been awakened and for the first time were able to enjoy the light of cheesy, carby goodness. This recipe did not come overnight, I tinkered with different ingredients and cooking methods for years trying to make this comfort-food staple a bit healthier without sacrificing too much flavor or texture. Skim milk and pre-shredded cheeses can make the sauce gritty. Low-fat cheese doesn’t melt well. Whole-grain pasta tends to overpower. This version makes inroads toward healthfulness, but is still a bit indulgent…and so, so satisfying. Ultimately, it is baked mac and cheese at its most basic, a general foundation on which many different versions can be built. Switch up the cheeses, the pastas, the toppings. Add some meat, heat or herbs. I’ll share more ways to make this in time, but I encourage you to play around and make it your own until I do. I also encourage you to enjoy!
1 pound pasta (macaroni, cavatappi or medium shells are great options)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, separated
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
8 cups (one quart) of 2% milk, warmed
8 ounces Monterrey jack cheese, shredded
8 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 teaspoon ground mustard powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups cheese crackers, crushed
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
- Shred the cheese and set aside. A food processor makes this task a breeze, but a box grater provides a free arm workout, your choice. Avoid pre-shredded cheese though, as the anti-caking additives can make your cheese sauce grainy.
- Grease a 13 x 9 inch pan with a tablespoon of the butter and set aside.
- Bring a large pan of water to boil and proceed to cook the pasta according to package instructions, less one minute. You want the pasta to be slightly undercooked (less than al dente), because it will cook a bit more in the oven. Once the pasta is ready, drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.
- In the meantime, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a heavy-bottom sauce pan or Dutch oven. Whisk in the flour, mustard powder and pepper until smooth and continue to stir for a minute or two to cook out the raw flour flavor.
- Slowly whisk in the warmed milk, I like to add it in thirds to make sure it is incorporated and that no lumps form.
- Next, add the Monterrey jack cheese and stir until melted and sauce is smooth.
- Then add the shredded Cheddar and stir until melted and smooth.
- Add salt and continue to cook the sauce on medium-low, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.
- Once thickened, add the pasta to the sauce and combine well. Transfer to the greased 13 x 9 inch pan.
- Combine crushed crackers and olive oil. Spread evenly over pasta and cheese sauce mixture.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until sauce is bubbling and the topping is golden brown.
- Let rest a good 10 minutes so that everything can set and cool, then serve and nosh!
Serves 6-8 as an entree
Serves 8-12 as a side dish