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Mac and cheese like you never tasted before

Kevin Weeks of Seriously Good announced late last year that he was hosting a Mac-and-Cheese-Off on his blog today. “After the over-the-top holiday eating I like something something basic and homey,” he wrote. “When CookieCrumb (CC) at I’m Mad and I Eat mentioned she was making mac-n-cheese, I thought it would be perfect meal for the first week of the New Year.”

I’d been thinking about posting my macaroni and cheese recipe on the blog, and decided New Year’s Day was the perfect time to make it. What better way to welcome the new year than on a cheesy, carby sea of goodness?

Stirring the sauceFor my entire life, macaroni and cheese has always been made from scratch. The legacy began with my grandmother on my Dad’s side, who used to bake up casseroles of it when I was a little girl. I remember her standing in her kitchen, stirring the sauce at her stove.

Mac and cheese from a box? It wasn’t even in my consciousness.

I don’t remember when I made mac and cheese for the first time, but I know I requested Grammy’s recipe. It included the basic building blocks: butter, flour, milk, cheddar cheese, pasta. Dad weighed in with a secret: “You have to crumble Saltines on the top. That’s what makes it good.”

That’s what makes it amazing, I’d argue.

I’ve spent my adult life chasing after the perfect macaroni and cheese. It’s not that I wanted to one-up my Grammy, but rather that I wanted to take what she passed on to me and make it even better, even more spectacular than I remembered.

But there’s a tipping point. You add too much, and it ceases to be mac and cheese, and becomes something else entirely.

Casserole, bubblingOver time, I’ve developed a system that starts with cheese selection. I forgo the all-cheddar monarchy for a United Nations approach. Cheddar serves as a base to which I add something Swiss, something smoky, something of the Parmaggiano family, and now, something soft. The exact cheese combination changes depending on what’s available when I’m shopping for the ingredients.

Take my latest batch, for example. I started with local cheddar made in Milton, Iowa. Next, I selected a Swiss Alpenzeller. I already had some grated Parmaggiano at home, so that would work for these purposes.

Next, I looked for smoked Gouda, but didn’t find any in my local co-op’s cheese case. I asked the woman behind the counter whether they had any that I’d missed, and she pointed me in the direction of some smoked provolone made in Wisconsin. “We don’t carry smoked Gouda anymore because we can’t get any that’s actually smoked,” she said. “It’s all injected with flavor.”

Never, ever use anything “injected with flavor” in your macaroni and cheese, people. It’s just wrong.

Last of all, I tossed an 8 oz. package of Neufchatel cheese in the basket. My friend Tammy has recently picked up a new mantra: everything’s better with cream cheese. I hadn’t tried Neufchatel, which is a lighter version of cream cheese, in my recipe before, but my instincts told me to give it a whirl.

Orecchiete, destined for greatnessIn the pasta aisle, I poked around until I found a box of orecchiete. I find this little pasta (“ear-shaped,” in Italian) to be the world’s best for mac-and-cheese. Purists, sit back down. Macaroni is not a requirement, and I don’t call it Orecchiete and Cheese just because I use something different. But trust me on this: the shape is more like little cups than little ears, perfect for catching up the cheesy goodness of the sauce. Try it; then come back and thank me.

From then on, you just follow the basic theory. Make a roux with flour and butter. Add your milk and cook it slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Add most of the cheese and let it melt into the sauce. Mix the sauce and the cubed, smoked cheese with the cooked pasta, top it with a crackery-crumbly-herby topping, and bake it up until the topping is golden. Then eat until you can’t eat any more. I promise…you’ll be amazed how quickly the blue box loses its luster.

Macaroni and cheese (like you’ve never tasted before)

Mac and cheese like you never tasted before

8 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded
8 oz. Swiss cheese, shredded (I like Gruyere or Alpenzeller)
8 oz. Neufchatel or cream cheese, cubed
8 oz. smoked Provolone, cubed
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
4 c. milk
A dash or three of hot sauce (optional)
16 oz. orecchiete, cooked and drained

For the topping:
1 sleeve Saltines, crumbled (I have also used whatever crumbly thing I have on hand, including breadcrumbs, tortilla chips, Triscuits, etc.)
3 Tbsp. shredded or grated Parmaggiano
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir with a whisk, constantly, for about a minute. You want the mixture to be smooth, and you want it to have time to reach a golden-brown color.
  3. Begin adding the milk slowly, continuing to whisk constantly, until all the milk is incorporated. Settle in for a long, constant whisking process. This has to be done slowly or the milk will scald, so don’t try to turn up the heat and rush this part.
  4. In about 15 minutes, maybe 20, the milk should be just below a simmer, steaming but not really bubbling, and the mixture should be thickening. That’s when it’s time to add the cheddar, the Swiss cheese and the Neufchatel. Whisk in the cheese until it has all melted and has incorporated into the sauce. Add some salt and freshly-ground pepper to the mix (about 1 1/2 tsp. of salt, and maybe three grinds with a pepper mill), as well as the hot sauce. (A note on the hot sauce: It will not make your mac-and-cheese spicy, but it will add another background flavor note. Trust me on this…it’s good.)
  5. Pour the cheese mixture into the pasta and stir to mix it all up. At this point, add the smoked cheese cubes and mix it into the pasta-cheese sauce mixture.
  6. Pour the whole mixture into a greased casserole dish (I use a 9 x 13 stoneware pan for this – this means more surface area for the crunchy goodness on the top.).
  7. Mix the Saltines, the Parmaggiano, and the sage in a bowl. Sprinkle the combination evenly over the top of the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the topping is brown and the casserole is bubbly.

Photo credit for image of the stirring of the cheese: Steve McNutt

18 Comments on “Mac and cheese like you never tasted before”

  1. #1 Alex
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 8:07 am

    Sounds delicious, but that is a huge batch! How many servings do you think that makes? I feel my arteries clogging just looking at the picture.

    I’ll have to try a variation on this next time I make it. I’ve never added smoked cheeses, nor soft cheeses when doing this. I’ve tried combos, but usually keep them close (say parmesian and asiago.) The hot sauce is an interesting idea. I love hot sauces, but lots in my family can’t take them at all. I’m wondering if I could find the right amount to add good flavour without kicking up the heat.

  2. #2 inadvertentgardener
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 8:17 am

    Alex, you could easily cut the recipe in half and make a smaller batch. I don’t make this often (for all the artery-clogging reasons — I’d rather enjoy it rarely than modify all that much), but I’d say in these quantities, it would serve about 8 as a main dish item, and 12 as a side dish.

    I always use skim milk, too, because that’s what we keep around the house. So that’s a helpful and easy modification, and it works just fine.

    I used Marie Sharp’s (a Belizean hot sauce made from habanero peppers) in this dish, and it wasn’t spicy at all. And this particular kind of sauce is wicked spicy on its own.

  3. #3 katie
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    That looks far too good. How can you not just eat it all in one sitting? Maybe after I go off my water and water diet…. or next week, whichever comes first

  4. #4 Sara, Ms. Adventures in Italy
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    That looks and sounds great….no purist comments here, though my DH might raise an eyebrow or two (he’s Pugliese, where those orecchiette are from!) I think it’s a great idea and now I have a recipe to try next time. Yum.

  5. #5 Lannae
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Smoked provolone sounds awesome! What a fabulous idea! I also must 2nd the idea of never using cheese that has been “injected with flavor”. I also like your choice of space ship shaped pasta. Yum!

  6. #6 kevin
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    Genie,
    Delightful!

  7. #7 inadvertentgardener
    on Jan 5th, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Katie, trust me…we tried. It’s so rich and filling that it lasted a full 36 hours after the original baking. I can also attest that it makes a terrific breakfast!

    Sara, I think if you give it a whirl, your DH will raise his eyebrows…then grin mightily!

    Lannae, I’m glad we’re in agreement on the space-ship shaped pasta (I never thought of it like that…I like that description much better than “little ears”) and the non-injected cheese. :-)

    Kevin, thanks, and thanks for stopping by…and hosting the event!

  8. #8 Alanna
    on Jan 6th, 2007 at 10:29 am

    OH MY OH MY OH MY … this is so cruel. It’s January people. Did you eat no Christmas cookies? ;-)

  9. #9 inadvertentgardener
    on Jan 6th, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Alanna, unfortunately, I ate way too many Christmas cookies…and other assorted Christmas food! So yeah, after the mac-and-cheese transgression, I have turned directly to greens and lean meats and tofu, oh my! :-)

  10. #10 Megan
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    Wow! No wonder we were instant friends, Genie…here I thought I was the only woman obsessed with “perfecting” mac n cheese. I’ve never tried the added cream cheese or the saltines. Guess I’ve got to get back in the kitchen! Thanks! This looks fabulous!

  11. #11 Chigiy
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    O.K.this looks too good. I’m going to try this recipe having faith that it is low in calories and cholesterol and that my seven year old son will like it better than Annie’s from the box. So far, to him, nothing is as good as Annie’s “shell kind of mac n cheese”. Children a strange little creatures. Happy New Year!

  12. #12 inadvertentgardener
    on Jan 8th, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    Megan, it’s a serious quest. SERIOUS. Glad to hear you’re on it, too. :-)

    Chigiy, actually, your son has good taste — Annie’s is one of the better boxed versions. As is the stuff Trader Joe’s makes — I will admit to being a fan of their white cheddar mac-and-cheese. But it’s nothing like the real deal! I hope you give this version a whirl, and that he likes it.

  13. #13 Kayll
    on Apr 15th, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Hi!

    This past Friday I had a three cheese mac & cheese at a local restaurant. It was so decliious and unlike any mac & cheese (sorry Nana) that I ever tasted, I started searching the net for a good recipe.

    While I didn’t follow the recipe to the T, it’s baking in the oven right now! Since I couldn’t find smoked provolone, I probably ended up getting the injected gouda – doh! But I was just craving mac & cheese. Also, with the mac & cheese being $13 a plate, I don’t mind mixing and making my own.

    I can’t wait to tell you how it tastes! And once it’s polished off, I’ll attempt to go vegan again. But alas – it is cheese I love so much!

    Thanks again!
    Kayll

  14. #14 inadvertentgardener
    on Apr 15th, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Kayll, this recipe is worth going non-vegan for a day or three…trust me. I really hope you enjoy it, and please come back and let me know how it worked for you!

  15. #15 Mac, Cheese and More « Fat Guy on a Little Bike
    on Dec 30th, 2007 at 10:38 am

    [...] No Comments Yesterday for dinner I cooked some Mac and Cheese, which claims to be the best Mac and Cheese recipe in the world.  I think they might be right.  I cut the recipe in half and still fed us all [...]

  16. #16 Sarah Learned
    on Jan 30th, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    I’m longing to try this…..maybe this weekend or next? It seems the appropriate meal for a cheese fanatic. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  17. #17 inadvertentgardener
    on Jan 30th, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Sarah, I’d love to know how it turns out for you. I just made some for a friend this past weekend and kept a good-sized ramekin of it out for myself to bake up for dinner…oh my goodness…it was delicious!

  18. #18 Stacey Fousek
    on Jul 8th, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Hey there! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to look it over. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Excellent blog and great design and style.

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