This is a story about how I discovered the best mac and cheese I’ve ever tasted (at least until I find the next one).
Planning the menu for my brother’s surprise birthday party, my niece said we were ordering in BBQ for the pool party, but we would be making all the sides. I suggested the usual suspects: you know, beans, coleslaw and potato salad.
“And mac and cheese,” she texts from Texas. “This crowd loves mac and cheese.”
And by “this crowd,” she means “the kids,” my 20-something niece and nephews and their close friends. I order mac and cheese in restaurants more frequently than I should admit, but it’s been a while (never?) since I made it from scratch.
Granted, mac and cheese isn’t out in left field for a barbecue, but when she mentioned it, I had a flashback to when these kids were actually kids. All of them grew up eating instant mac and cheese, the single serving kind you can pop in a microwave for a minute, stir in a packet of powdered cheese and call it dinner. That was not going to work for me this time. I wanted to make a better mac and cheese.
One of my very favorite mac and cheese dishes comes from Chef Bernie Kantak at Citizen Public House, aptly named “Bernie’s Mac ‘N Cheese.” It has Gorgonzola and Emmental, as well as a spoonful of sweet tomato confit and toasted bread crumbs. But what I like most about his mac and cheese is the pasta. He uses the thick, corkscrew-shaped cavatappi. It’s curved shape and substantial thickness means it grabs and holds onto the cheese sauce, and every bite is chewy.
I had a feeling these “kids” would prefer something a little more basic than fancy blue cheese and tomato confit, so I went hunting for a recipe that was close to a straight-up mac and cheese (meaning it was cheddar-based with a straight-forward béchamel sauce).
I found the recipe on Epicurious.com that may have first run in the October 2014 issue of Bon Appetit. I’ve modestly simplified it to please everyone from kids to adults, although you could use the original recipe for a more grown-up taste (there is garlic and Parmesan in the bread crumbs).
The original recipe makes enough for a crowd of hungry 20-somethings, completely filling a 13 X 9 X 2 pan. I don’t always have a crowd, so I wanted to see if I could cut the recipe in half to serve six normal adults. You need a 2-quart dish for this recipe, so I’m using a rectangular glass casserole dish that measures 11 X 7 X 2. It gives more surface area for those glorious, toasted bread crumbs compared to, say, a 2-quart round casserole dish.
Whether you make this portion, or double the recipe, I think you’ll find it’s one of the best mac and cheese recipes you’ve ever tasted.
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- Salt and pepper
- 8 ounces (1/2 pound) cavatappi pasta
- 4 tablespoons butter (plus 1 more tablespoon to grease dish)
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- ½ cup heaving cream [edit: that's "heavy" not "heaving", oops]
- ⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
- 2 ½ teaspoons mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- To make the bread crumbs: heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the panko and season with salt and pepper. Stir and toss bread crumbs until evenly brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. It’s important to keep the crumbs moving around for even browning. Remove from heat. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool and store, covered, at room temperature.)
- Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just before al dente. If the package says cook 9 to 11 minutes, cook only 8 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool, drain and store in the fridge, covered.)
- To make the cheese sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan (large enough to hold the cheese sauce and the pasta) over medium heat. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk to remove lumps. Cook, whisking frequently, until the flour cooks out a bit but the color of the roux is still pale, about 3 or 4 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cream and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture slightly thickens, about 3 or 4 minutes. Sprinkle in the nutmeg, mustard powder, salt and pepper. Whisk until blended. Switch to a spatula or spoon, and stir in the cheeses, a handful at a time, stirring until the cheese melts before adding the next handful. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring, until all the cheese is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in the cooked pasta, tossing to coat.
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Grease an 11 X 7 X 2 baking dish with 1 tablespoon of butter. Pour the pasta and cheese mixture into the prepared pan. Top evenly with the toasted bread crumbs. Place on a rack in the center of the oven and bake until the mixture is bubbling hot, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes before serving.