Every year around this time, I make a batch of homemade Mac & Cheese for my step-daughter’s birthday. While her cake requests sometimes vary (Chocolate Lava Cakes, Ding-Dong Cake, and Sticky Toffee Pudding this year), the Mac & Cheese request is always there!
My husband told me her love of Mac & Cheese came from the famous dish he made when his kids were little. My husband is great at making reservations, not so much at making dinner, however, he always bragged to me about his special Mac and Cheese doused in tomato juice. He loved to tell me how much his kids enjoyed it.
A few years back, the truth came out…they actually hated it. They appreciated his efforts and politely ate it despite being somewhat repelled by all the tomato juice. He was crushed! I think he is finally over it (mostly), and now my step-kids don’t have to worry about that version of Mac & Cheese showing up at our family dinners. I have been assured that my Mac & Cheese is delicious and they are not just saying that!
I believe them, because almost every time I make this dish, people ask me for the recipe. This recipe pleases everyone. The cheese sauce is made with onion, thyme, bay leaves and peppercorns to give it great flavour. However, all of that is strained out so no green bits that kids (and I am not just talking about the little ones) might not like. There is no need to use expensive aged cheddar. You just need to ensure it is a sharp version. Avoid pre-shredded cheese as it is usually coated in flour and does not melt as smoothly. You can make this recipe entirely ahead, up to the point of baking. Keep the topping separate and do not add it until you are ready to bake it. Refrigerate for up to two days or freeze for longer storage. If freezing, defrost in the refrigerator overnight before topping and baking.
If you want to show off, this Mac & Cheese can also easily be dressed up. You can substitute half or all the cheddar cheese with another good melting cheese such as Gruyere. You can also easily mix-in additional flavours such as roasted peppers, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms or cooked meats such as bacon, chicken or ground beef. One of my favourite combinations is replacing the cheddar with a 50/50 blend of Gruyère and Fontina cheeses and mixing in sautéed mushrooms and prosciutto. Or, use cave-aged Gruyère and stir in some cooked lobster and you have Mac & Cheese fancy enough for New Year’s Eve!
Classic Mac & Cheese
serves 6 to 8
454g (1 lb) elbow macaroni; or other small, tubular pasta
170g (12 tbsp) unsalted butter
46g (6 tbsp) all-purpose flour
½ medium onion, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
9 black peppercorns
1064 ml (4½ cups) milk
10 ml (2 tsp) Kosher salt
5 ml (1 tsp) freshly ground pepper
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
454g (6 cups) finely grated old cheddar
28g (2 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted
63 g (1 ¼ cup) fresh breadcrumbs
Heat the oven to 375°F and butter a 9×13-inch baking dish. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add the elbows; cook until just tender following the package’s directions and drain well.
Make a roux by melting the butter in a heavy, medium saucepan over medium heat and then adding the flour, onion, bay leaf, thyme, and peppercorns. Cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Slowly whisk the milk into the roux until thoroughly combined. Raise the heat to medium high; whisk constantly until the mixture boils. Simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened. Lower the heat and continue simmering for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. This it to flavour the sauce. Strain the sauce into a large bowl, removing the onion, herbs, and peppercorns. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, and shredded cheese, stirring until the cheese is just melted.
Toss the pasta with the cheese sauce and pour the mixture into the baking dish. Toss the breadcrumbs with the melted butter and spread them over the casserole. Bake until sizzling and lightly browned on top (cover with foil if the top browns too quickly), about 40 minutes.