Baked Macaroni & Cheese

  Well, I know I just vowed to make some healthier recipes this month, but things have changed. Namely, the temperature. November and December were positively spring-like. It was 71 degrees on Christmas Eve! But now, winter has reared its ugly head, and it’s a frigid 18 degrees. It’s supposed to get up to a balmy 30 this afternoon though😁 There is a time and place for super healthy dinners, but my kitchen on a day when the temperature never creeps above freezing is. not. it. Weather like this calls for Baked Macaroni & Cheese: al dente macaroni covered in a velvety cheese sauce, then topped with crispy panko bread crumbs and baked ’til bubbly. With a salad or some roasted vegetables, it’s a perfect meal for these frigid days.

Macaroni & Cheese needs no introduction, of course. It’s everyone’s favorite comfort food. It’s super simple to make, taking less than an hour from putting the water on to boil to taking the final product out of the oven. It’s nearly as fast as the boxed stuff (and way more delicious). Also, this recipe makes enough for an army, so it’s perfect for freezing. It also halves easily. If you’ve never taken the time to make macaroni & cheese from scratch, this is a great recipe to start with–it may just keep you from ever buying the box again!

Baked Macaroni & Cheese starts with boiling water for pasta. Cook the macaroni for 4.5-5 minutes, until it’s just barely al dente. If it is fully cooked, it might be too soft after baking in the cheese sauce. The last thing we want is gummy mac & cheese. Drain the pasta and put it back in its cooking pot while you make the sauce.
  The sauce is the key to making really spectacular mac & cheese. It’s very simple to put together, but requires your full attention while it’s cooking. Start by heating 3 cups of whole milk, just until it’s warm to the touch. Make a roux by melting butter in a large saucepan and then adding an equal amount of flour. Stir with a whisk or wooden spoon for a couple of minutes, until it’s a golden yellow paste. Stir in one teaspoon of prepared Dijon mustard. This will offset the richness of all the dairy–I promise it will not make your mac & cheese taste like Grey Poupon! Slowly whisk the warm milk into the roux. Do not stop whisking until it thickens a bit. You want to be able to see faint whisk “tracks” before you start adding the cheese. Whisk in cheese by the handful, making sure that everything melts completely. Once the sauce has a smooth, even consistency, stir in salt and pepper. This will seem like a ton of sauce for the amount of macaroni, but as baked mac & cheese tends to dry out a bit in the oven, we need a lot of sauce to keep everything nice and creamy. 

Pour the sauce into the pot with the cooked pasta and fold it all together with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon. Transfer the coated pasta into a buttered pan (I used two pie plates, but this also fits in a 9×13″ casserole dish). Top with panko breadcrumbs and dot with butter before baking for 15 minutes at 400F. Once the breadcrumbs are starting to turn brown, it’s ready! Let the full pan(s) cool for a few minutes before serving.

Baked Macaroni & Cheese involves a lot of steps, but none of them are difficult. The most tasking part is making the sauce, and that really isn’t hard at all! So, now that it’s cold out, ditch the box and make something way, way better. Your family and friends will thank you for it.
 Baked Macaroni & Cheese
makes one 9×13″ pan or two 9″ pie plates
serves 10-12

1 pound (16 ounces) dried macaroni*
3 cups whole milk*
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard*
2 1/2 cups grated melting cheese, like extra-sharp cheddar*
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
1 cup plain panko breadcrumbs*

Preheat oven to 400F. Butter one 9×13″ pan or two 9″ pie plates. Set aside.

Bring 4-6 quarts of water to a boil. Add dried macaroni and cook until barely al dente, about 4.5-5 minutes. Drain the pasta and put it back in the pot it cooked in.

Warm whole milk over low heat* until it’s just warm to the touch. Remove from heat.

Put a large saucepan over medium heat. Melt six tablespoons of butter. Add flour and stir with a whisk or wooden spoon until the roux is a golden yellow color, about two minutes. Whisk in Dijon mustard. Slowly add warmed milk to the pan, whisking constantly. Once the mixture has started to thicken,* add grated cheese by the handful, making sure it all melts before adding more. Once the sauce has an even consistency, whisk in the salt and black pepper before removing the pan from the heat.

Pour the sauce into the pot with the drained pasta. Fold pasta and sauce together with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon. Pour mixture into prepared pan(s).* Top with panko and dot with two tablespoons of butter. Bake at 400F for 15-20 minutes, until browned and bubbly. Let cool five minutes before serving.

Notes:

1. Use any small pasta you like. Shells or cavatappi are good choices here.
2. You may use 1% or 2% milk, but I do not recommend using skim or fat free.
3. This may be substituted with 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard powder, or left out entirely.
4. I prefer Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar in my mac & cheese, but any combination of melting cheeses will work.
5. Regular plain breadcrumbs may be substituted.
6. Milk may also be heated in the microwave.
7. If sauce gets too thick, add milk until it has thinned to your liking.
8. At this point, macaroni & cheese may be frozen in a pan for up to two months. Bake from frozen for one hour, adding panko topping at the 45 minute mark.

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