I’m going to tell you right now: Don’t blame me if you gain a few pounds. This is one of my ultimate comfort foods. Whenever I make it, it always turns into an excruciating battle with my (underdeveloped) sense of self control.
I almost always wind up losing.
Go on and make a pan. I defy you not to stuff yourself. You’ll see.
The filling is rich, creamy, and satisfyingly salty. The topping is crisp with just the right amount of crunch for contrast. Seriously, this might just be the perfect feel-better food.
The basic technique for Ultimate Mac ‘n Cheese
This recipe follows the basic tenets of a lot of mac ‘n cheese recipes.
Make a basic bechamel sauce (milk thickened with a combination of flour + butter), toss in loads of cheese and a handful of spices, mix with al dente pasta, top with cheese-y panko breadcrumb topping, and bake until it’s blissfully bubbly.
Here’s how to do that in detail.
Wait, Mouse. Are you trying to kill me with all that cheese?
No. I promise, I’m not. I love you. You should know better.
That said, this recipe does call for about two-and-a-half pounds of cheese.
That’s a lot. I know. Trust me, it’s worth it. (In my defense, it makes a 9 x 13-inch pan, packed to the rim.)
And if I may offer this advice: Don’t skimp. Don’t use low-fat cheese. Don’t try to do tricky things with yogurt or skim milk. It’s mac ‘n cheese. It’s not diet food. It’s guilty pleasure food, so go on and just enjoy.
I used a mixture of taleggio and cheddar (for strong, cheese-y flavor), fontina (for mellow nuttiness), and mozzarella (to make all those gooey strings of cheese).
Change up the cheeses however you like. Just aim for 2 1/2 lbs. and be sure to choose cheeses that melt well. Fine Cooking magazine has a really good guide on that here.
Which kind of pasta should I use for mac ‘n cheese?
I used medium shells, but by all means, use whichever noodle you like best.
Choose pasta that’s on the medium to small side (larger noodles tend to break and lose their shape). Pick a shape that has lots of nooks and crannies to trap all that glorious sauce. Elbows, rotini, and radiatore all work great.
Ultimate Mac n’ Cheese
Pasta (a.k.a. vehicle for cheese)
1 lb. medium shells
4 Tbls. butter
2 cups panko breadcrumbs (or cut the crusts off white bread and whiz it all up in the food processor)
1 1/2 cups shredded orange cheddar
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated
Ooey, Gooey Cheese-y Goodness
8 Tbls. butter + butter to grease the pan
8 Tbls. flour
5 cups whole milk
1 tsp. ground white pepper
1 tsp. ground garlic
8 oz. Taleggio, chopped into small pieces
8 oz. young Fontina, chopped into small pieces
2 cups shredded orange cheddar
1 cup shredded mozzarella
Makes 1 (9 x 13-inch) pan
Generously butter a 9 x 13-inch pan. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Cook the pasta
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Aim for al dente. (The pasta will continue to cook in the oven.)
Drain the pasta. Give it a rinse with cold water to keep it from glomming together. Set it aside to drain in the sink while you make the topping and the sauce.
Make the breadcrumb topping
Melt 4 Tbls. of butter (that’s half a stick) and put it in a large bowl. (I usually just zap it in the microwave for about 30 seconds on high.)
Toss in the panko.
Give a stir to mix with the butter. It will be clumpy. Just break up the lumps with a wooden spoon.
Add the Parmesan cheese and the shredded cheddar.
Mix to combine. Set aside while you deal with the sauce.
Make the cheese sauce
Melt the butter in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Toss in the flour.
Whisk well to combine.
Beat out all the lumps, until you have a smooth paste. (If you want to get technical about it, you’re making a white roux here.) Cook for about 3 minutes, whisking often. You don’t want it to get brown. You just want to cook the rawness out of the flour.
Pour in the milk. Whisk well to combine and incorporate the roux with the milk.
Raise the heat to medium-high. Bring the sauce to a boil, whisking constantly. When it starts to boil, knock the heat down to medium, and simmer the sauce for about 3 more minutes, or until it’s considerably thicker. Whisk constantly. If you don’t, it will stick and burn on the bottom of the pot.
Yank the pot from the heat when it’s nice and thick. You want it to look about like this (thick, but not like grammar school paste):
Grab your taleggio, fontina, and shredded cheddar. Resist the urge to gobble it all down.
Toss it into the pot.
Whisk to combine and get it melting.
Whisk for a few minutes, on and off, to incorporate the cheese as it melts. Again, resist the urge to jump in the pot and swim around with your mouth open.
Toss in the white pepper and garlic powder. Whisk to combine.
Your sauce should be thick and velvety.
Assemble and bake the mac ‘n cheese
Transfer the cooked pasta to a large mixing bowl. (By large, I mean the largest one you have. It has to fit the sauce + the pasta, with enough room to stir it all around.)
Pour the sauce over the pasta.
(Mmm mmm mmm…)
Mix it all up.
Toss in that last cup of mozzarella and mix well. This will give your mac ‘n cheese those wonderful strings of cheese.
Pour the mixture into your buttered pan.
Sprinkle thickly with the prepared topping.
Pop the pan into your pre-heated 400-degree oven. If your pan is really, really full, slide a piece of aluminum foil onto the rack below the pan. It’ll catch any drips and save you a ton of cleanup if your pan bubbles over a little.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the crust is brown and bubbly. Yank it out of the oven and let it cool a bit on the counter.
It reheats really well, and will keep for about 3 days in the fridge.
Oh, and as good as this is, if you want to make it even better, serve garnished with big, cooked hunks of lobster meat.