Classic Macaroni and Cheese

IMG_8846.JPG, originally uploaded by tantek. Full disclosure: This photo is not of my mac and cheese. But it’s a better photo than the one I took.

One thing I hate is other people telling me what or what not to eat. The American culture seems obsessed with what you should or shouldn’t eat to be the healthiest, slimmest, longest lived, but this constant obsessing over what we put in our mouths robs eating of all enjoyment, in my opinion. My philosophy about food is simple: Eat what you like, just not to excess.

The truth is, if I have to choose between being a few pounds heavier and never eating cheese (for example) again, I’ll take the extra pounds. Yes, Americans by and large are excessively overweight and eat a lot of junk. That’s not the sign of a healthy relationship with food. But neither is obsessing over every bite, so that having a meal feels more like work than pleasure. Eating in a sensual experience. When we do allow ourselves a “bad” food, then we should savor the experience.

Enter macaroni and cheese, the quintessential comfort food. A plate of macaroni and cheese isn’t going to make you any thinner. But every once in a while, it’s just what you need. When you make it from scratch, with a smooth, creamy sauce and a crunchy topping, you’ll appreciate it more. So the next time someone’s lecturing you about how much fat and calories are in a forkful of mac ‘n’ cheese, just close your eyes, tune them out and savor each bite.

This recipe is for classic baked macaroni and cheese. It starts with a standard bechamel sauce combined with a healthy amount of cheese. I suggest using cheddar and Monterey Jack, but many other cheeses will work, as long as they melt well. The recipe can be made ahead, refrigerated or frozen, and then baked just before serving. While this recipe is for plain mac and cheese, feel free to throw in a few vegetables, if you want to make it “healthier” (suggestions follow the recipe).

Macaroni and Cheese

Time to make: ~45 minutes
Yields: 4-6 servings

What you need:

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • ½ onion, diced
  • 3 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard or 1 tbsp. Dijon
  • pinch cayenne or 1 tsp. hot sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2½ cups milk
  • 1 thyme sprig
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cup Monterey Jack, shredded
  • 1 cup cheddar, shredded
  • ½ lb. macaroni or similar pasta, cooked
  • 1 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • ¼ cup Paremsan, grated
  • Italian herb mix
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high.
  3. Add the onion and saute until it turns translucent, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the flour and whisk until it deepens in color, 1 minute.
  5. Stir in the mustard, cayenne or hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
  6. Gradually pour in the milk, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the herbs, and simmer until the sauce is thickened and the flavors have melded, about 15 minutes.
  8. Take the sauce off the heat and remove the herbs.
  9. Whisk in the cheeses until melted.
  10. Stir in the cooked pasta.
  11. Transfer the mixture to an oiled baking dish.
  12. Combine the bread crumbs, olive oil, Parmesan and herb mix, and sprinkle over the top.
  13. Bake for 15 minutes, untl bubbling and the top is browned.

Notes: If desired, add cooked vegetables with the pasta. I have tried broccoli, canned tomatoes and roasted peppers or chiles — they were all good. For a Southwestern-style mac and cheese, stir in 1 cup salsa with the pasta. For a heartier dish, add some cooked ham or bacon. Or make up your own variations — almost anything goes with mac ‘n’ cheese!

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5 thoughts on “Classic Macaroni and Cheese

  1. dylan555 24 April 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Mmmmm, cheeeeeeese. I love this dish so much.

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