Mac and Cheese

Mac and Cheese has been around for centuries – quite literally. Pasta and cheese casseroles first made their appearance in the 14th century, but the Mac and Cheese we know today made its first appearance in 1786 within the book ‘The Experienced English Housekeeper‘. Mac n Cheese has come a long way since then, ranging from the instant varieties to high end deconstructed macaroni and cheese at fine dining restaurants. This recipe sits straight in the middle; it tastes great, requires little skill, and it makes silky, delicious, and easy mac and cheese. Before we get started we have a couple of tough choices to make.

The Pasta

Pasta Shapes for Mac n Cheese
Pasta Shapes for Mac and Cheese

To start with, we need to pick the right type of pasta. Traditionally elbow macaroni is used and while this works well there are other, less common, types of pasta which you can use. What you’re looking for is a short shape which is thick enough to give good bite, and has plenty of surface area. More surface area, more sauce gets stuck to it.

The types I would recommend, in order of preference are:

  • Cavatappi
  • Castellane
  • Fusilli
  • Elbow

The Cheese

Alright, so this one always starts some debate. Munster or Mascarpone? Cheddar or Gruyere? Pepperjack? Gouda?

Forget about the debate – this is meant to be an easy mac and cheese. That means that the method must be simple, and the ingredients need to be easy to acquire. So we’re going to stick to three accessible ingredients.

  1. Parmesan – It’s nutty, sharp, and it’s going to add some salty contrast to the rest of the cheeses.
  2. Cheddar – I really don’t need to explain this one. It’s everywhere, it tastes great, and it melts superbly.
  3. Mascarpone – It’s dense, and slightly sweet. But we’re not after the flavor profile for this one, we want its creaminess to end up with a velvety sauce that spreads everywhere

The Sauce

Yes, there’s more to a Mac and Cheese sauce than cheese. A good Mac and Cheese uses a Bechamel sauce as a base. Bechamel has been with us since the 17th century, and has been considered to be one of the five french mother sauces.

On its own, Bechamel is very bland. After all, it’s a simple mixture of flour, milk, and butter. It’s there to be used as a base for the cheese to melt into, and it will help the entire sauce cling to the pasta.

Now, despite it being French it’s still very simple to make. It’s equal parts flour to butter and then thickened with milk. Exact portions are of course below. We’ll start with melting the butter in the pot, and then adding the flour and whisking it together until it forms a dough which is called a roux. We will then stir and cook this dough for 2 minutes to cook the taste of flour away.

Once that’s done, we’ll add the milk and stir until its thickened up. Congratulations, your Bechamel’s done, and you have bragging rights because now you know how to make a fancy French mother sauce.

Hold up, what's a roux?
A roux is a mixture of fat and flour used to thicken a sauce.
It's typically made of equal parts flour and the fat (usually butter).
Heat removes the floury taste, and adds nuttiness.
In Creole cooking, the roux is darkened until it looks like an old copper penny.
It's also an essential part of French cuisine.

The Crust

Forget sprinkling with cheese, or baking until the noodles get crunchy. We’re going international and throwing some toasted panko on top. It’s delicious, gets everywhere, has a bit of crunch, and again – it’s delicious.

Now that all that’s cleared up, let’s focus on the good stuff: ingredients, and instructions.

Ingredients

  • 700ml / 3 cups milk (hot, but not boiling)
  • 70g / 2.5oz butter
  • 70g / 2.5oz flour
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 100g / 1 cup parmesan (grated)
  • 100g / 1 cup cheddar (grated)
  • 330g / 12oz mascarpone
  • 2tsp white pepper
  • 2tbsp mustard powder
  • 1tbsp garlic powder
  • 1tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 cup panko
  • 500g / 1lb pasta. Preferably cavatappi, alternatively refer to the above.

Method

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, and cook the pasta in it until it’s al dente. It doesn’t need to be fully cooked through as it will finish in the sauce. In the meantime preheat your oven at 180°C / 360°F.
  • While the pasta boils toast your panko in a small pan over medium heat until it turns golden brown.
  • Once the pasta is done, drain it and set aside. Return the large pot onto medium-low heat, and melt the butter in it.
  • Once the butter has melted, add the onions and cook until translucent.
  • Add the flour to the butter and whisk vigorously until a dough forms. This is called a roux. Cook a further 2 minutes until it loses its floury flavor.
  • Add the warm milk, a little at a time, and whisk together. Adding it bit-by-bit helps prevent lumps.
  • Once all the milk is incorporated, throw in the Cheddar and Parmesan and mix until both have melted and incorporated into the sauce.
  • Add the Mascarpone, and mix again.
  • Add the spices and salt to taste. Stir one last time.
  • In a large gratin dish (use a deep baking dish if you don’t have a gratin dish) stir in the cooked pasta, the sauce, and top with the Panko.
  • Throw into the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes. Enjoy your easy Mac and Cheese.