A little less than a year ago, I posted this recipe for Mac n’ Cheese. The technique of cooking the pasta in the béchamel sauce was new to me and so appealing for cutting down on dishes. It reliably gave the baked Mac n’ Cheese a wonderful texture too, something that had eluded me with other recipes. Now my Mac n’ Cheese comes out the same every time and just the way I like it. I found this recipe, and I’ve stuck with it very happily.
The biggest difference, however, is that I use a significantly less amount of cheese than the original recipe. Rather than a range of cheeses, each a different measurement, I simply use 1lb cheese for each 1lb of pasta. I also cut down on the bread crumbs, as 1 1/2 cups seemed excessive for a weekday meal.
So now I’m sharing the same cooking method as the original recipe, but with the proportions I use whenever I make it. Happy baking!
Baked Mac n’ Cheese
6 tbs butter, divided
1/4 cup flour
3 cups milk
2 cups water
1 lb macaroni, or other favorite pasta shape
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup bread crumbs or crushed crackers (such as Ritz, Saltines, or Club)
1 lb cheese, grated (Use your favorite! Or a mix. Our go to is cheddar.)
1/4 tsp cayenne, optional (see note)
Salt & pepper
Preheat oven to 350.
In large saucepan (or if you have an oven proof dutch oven or similar pan, use it! One less pan to wash) melt 4 tbs butter over med heat. Whisk in flour. Reduce heat to med-low and cook for 1 min, stirring. Gradually whisk in milk, then add 2 cups of water and macaroni. Stir, then increase heat to med-high and bring to a boil, stirring frequently (the pasta is prone to sticking to the bottom, so stirring here is very important). Once at a boil, reduce heat to medium and cook until pasta is al dente, about 8-10 min, stirring frequently. (A note on the boiling and cooking time of the pasta on the stovetop: when I’ve upped the recipe significantly (using 3lbs of pasta) and used cold, cold water & milk, the pasta was al dente almost immediately after reaching a boil. So, keep an eye on it and taste it periodically to ensure the pasta doesn’t overcook.)
Meanwhile, melt remaining 2 tbs butter in medium skillet. Add garlic, and cook until fragrant. Add bread or cracker crumbs, and stir to coat. Cook for 3-5 min more, stirring constantly, until nicely browned. Remove from heat and set aside.
When macaroni is al dente, turn off heat and add grated cheese and optional cayenne. Stir until all the cheese is melted. Season with salt and pepper. (I use about 3/4-1 tsp salt (varies depending how salty your cheese is) and a few grinds of fresh pepper.)
Transfer mixture to 9x13 baking dish (or leave in dish if you’ve used an oven proof one). Place on a baking sheet (to catch any dripping — smokey kitchens are no fun!) and put in oven. Bake for 15-20 min or until crumbs are browned and sauce is bubbling. Let sit 5 minutes, then enjoy!
The bread crumb topping isn’t necessary, but is oh so delicious. Just omit if you’d like and get a crunchy pasta lid instead. Also, if you are out of fresh garlic, an 1/8 tsp of dried will work but not be nearly as flavorful.
We’ve used a range of cheeses in addition to some cheddar: Romano, dill & chive jack, mozzarella, garlic & herb jack, pepper jack, cream cheese (broken into small chunks so it melts better), gouda, etc… It is hard to go wrong.
If your cayenne is spicy like mine, omit or decrease to just a pinch. Mac n’ Cheese is such a kid favorite, I feel a tad guilty making it unpalatable for them.
If omitting cayenne (or even if you use it!) other herbs & spices are tasty in Mac n’ Cheese too, such as: onion powder (1/4 to 1/2 tsp), garlic powder (1/4 to 1/2 tsp), thyme (1/4 to 1 tsp), and paprika, smoked or sweet (1/4 to 1 tsp) to name a few.
While we’ve eaten this pasta unbaked, it honestly isn’t the best recipe for stovetop Mac n’ Cheese. The cooking technique that makes it so wonderful baked (not getting overcooked, neither too soupy or thick) gives it an odd texture right off the stove. It is very, very thick and somewhat gloopy. As it only takes 15min or so in the oven, it never seems too much a bother to bake it.
Once I used leftover whey from yogurt and ricotta making in place of the water. It cooked up the same, but adding a depth of flavor and making the dish more filling (certainly ups the protein!). Not something I would do every time, but a great way to use up whey.
Adapted from Half Baked Harvest Cookbook.