Macaroni and cheese holds a very dear place in my heart. It was my dad's favourite meal, so we ate it often growing up. And because we were pretty poor, it was a good and cheap way to feed five kids. Hahah except we always had it with a side of mashed potatoes and buttered bread. So maybe not the healthiest meal. But everybody left the table full and happy, and that's all that counted back in the day. And my dad hated spice of any kind. As most dads did back then. So my mom just boiled the noodles and layered them in a casserole dish with grated mild cheddar and topped it with smashed up saltines and baked it off. The End. No flavour at all. But thank God, Heinz had invented ketchup by then, and nobody took advantage of that more than I did!
Mac & cheese was the first dinner I ever learned to cook as a child so I could help my mom out and have supper ready by the time she got home from work. And it's been a staple on my dinner table my whole life because I learned it's something that kids really love, so I could be sure my LadyGirls weren't going to bed hungry. And like any of my recipes, it's evolved over the years as the girls got older and more adventurous with their taste buds. So the idea of mac & cheese in my mind, is that the pasta is the back beat of the dish and the cheese is the tempo. Like any pasta dish really. The sauce is the star of the show. And cheese on a platter with a nice bottle of red wine is lovely, but it really can't stand alone in a sauce. It needs enhancing. So I add a bit of spice and this and that to jazz it up.
All good, creamy mac & cheese recipes start with a classic Béchamel sauce and you whisk in your cheese and your macaroni noodles. And now you have a difficult choice to make. You can eat it at this stage and it's sumptuous and delicious. Or you can sprinkle some bread crumbs or Panko or even smashed Ritz crackers and bake it off. I'll give you the baked off version, but by all means, feel free to break away before the bake off stage and you won't be disappointed!
You'll need to boil some elbow macaroni in salted boiling water. Depending on how much you want, use 2 or 3 cups of dried pasta.
For the sauce:
1/3 cup melted butter
3 tablespoons of flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon of grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon of cayenne powder
1 tablespoon of Dijon mustard
2 1/2 cups of half and half or milk
3 cups of cheese. Use what you like. I used extra old white cheddar and Gruyere. (This ain't momma's mac & cheese) but you can use cheddar and parmesan. The cheese is your call since this is your signature mac & cheese. You can grate it if you like. I hate grating cheese, so I chop it into bite sized pieces.
For the topping:
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and add 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs or Panko or smashed crackers. Mix it all together and sprinkle it over the top.
Preheat the oven to 350 if you're planning to bake this.
Boil the macaroni until still slightly firm to the bite. About 10-12 minutes and drain it well.
Melt the butter and whisk in the flour using medium heat. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne and Dijon and whisk for 3 or 4 minutes until it turns golden. Add the cream and whisk until it just comes up to the boil. It should be pretty thick by now. If it isn't, keep whisking and let it simmer for a few minutes till it thickens up. Turn off the heat and whisk in the cheese. It doesn't have to melt completely. About half melted is fine. And the macaroni and stir it all together.
You could eat it now. Or you can forge ahead with me.
Pour it all into a greased casserole dish and sprinkle the top with your topping. Bake it for 30 minutes until the topping is golden brown. Let it rest for 10 minutes before you serve it. And that's it! Serve it with anything or just have it on its own. Hahah I don't use ketchup on it anymore. (Now I use hot sauce!) Enjoy friends.