There's no need to take shortcuts with mac and cheese; the full-on baked mac and cheese comes together so easily and turns out perfectly bubbling with crispy bits on top, every time.
This is my family's favorite mac and cheese, which I've been making for years based in a recipe by Marc Bittman from his magisterial How to Cook Everything. (Okay, there's a subset of the family for whom Wacky Mac is competitive for favorite.) It comes out crispy-topped and supremely cheesy, exactly like a proper mac and cheese should be. Once you get the hang of it, it's super simple to make. Baked mac and cheese isn't as simple as box mix, to be sure, but it only takes about half an hour to make stellar mac and cheese like you'd get at a restaurant.
You'll kick things off by boiling your elbow macaroni until it's just past al dente and preheating the oven. Then, make the sauce while the noodles are cooking and the oven's heating up.
Making a bechamel sauce base for the cheese sauce
Béchamel is one of the "mother sauces" of modern French cuisine and pity that it is, because this is really a sauce of the people dressed up and fancified so that it seems bigger than its britches. All you do is take equal parts butter (or another fat, like oil) and flour, so, for example, 3 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoon flour. You start off by melting the butter in a pot, then adding the flour, which will quickly cook into a thick paste. Then you gradually add in milk (or another liquid) and wait for the flour to thicken it up, until the sauce is the consistency you like. You do have to watch the sauce carefully while making it, but it doesn't take long and is highly intuitive.
As a side note, I like using a Scandinavian-style whisk for making béchamel: it's a wonderfully versatile and inexpensive piece to add to your kitchen tool
Turning the béchamel into cheese sauce
There's probably a French term for this, but after your béchamel is all nice and thickened and ready, you just stir some grated cheese into it. Yeah, that's it, now you have delicious cheese sauce. By the way, this stuff is magic on pretty much anything. My family loves it with broccoli at a dairy meal.
Assembling and baking the mac and cheese
Also easy: dump your delicious cheese sauce all over your drained noodles. When the noodles are all coated in the cheese sauce, pour them out into a large baking dish.
At this point, by the way, you can stop and serve as-is, without baking, as a great stovetop mac and cheese.
For crispy topping, sprinkle bread crumbs over top and then finish off with a layer of grated parmesan cheese. Stick in the oven to get nice and bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes.
Looking for more comfort food?
- Kosher Chicken "Parm" - an Italian-American favorite.
- Sweet Dairy Noodle Kugel - the mac and cheese of Ashkenazi cooking!
- 2nd Ave. Potato Pierogi - a bit more of a kitchen project, but fun to make and an ultimate comfort food.
Baked Mac and Cheese (dairy)
- 1 lb elbow macaroni - 500 g
- 2 ½ cups milk - 600 ml
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp dry mustard - optional
- salt and black pepper
- 4 Tbsp butter - ½ stick
- 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups grated cheese - such as cheddar or Emmental - 150 g
- ½ cup grated parmesan - 50 g
- ½ cup or more fresh bread crumbs
- Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add the noodles and cook until just past al dente. Drain and return to the pot.
Make the cheese sauce:
- Warm the milk with the bay leaves, on the stove or in the microwave, until just beginning to simmer. Set aside.
- In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. When completely melted, add the flour and whisk until a thick, golden paste forms.
- Pour about ¼ cup of the hot milk (discard the bay leaves first) into the saucepan. Whisk until combined and thickened.
- Keep adding milk in small increments and whisking until thickened.
- When all the milk has been added, add the salt, pepper, and dry mustard, if using. Stir in the grated cheese.
Assemble and bake:
- Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta in the pot. Stir to combine evenly.
- Grease a large baking pan and pour the cheesy noodles into it. Pat into an even layer.
- Sprinkle the parmesan on top of the noodles, then top with bread crumbs.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes, until bubbling around the edges.