When it comes to making the ideal mac and cheese, you could say it’s all in the cheese. Or cheeses, because a mac and cheese with just one kind of cheese is going to be dull and disappointing. You need at least three (in my opinion) to make something worthwhile, four would be better, and five, well, five creates a mac ‘n cheese with a unique depth and richness all its own.
Technically what I made was 4 cheese, since I used a cheddar/Gruyere blend (and if you have a Trader Joe’s near you, I highly recommend using 6 ounces of their Mélange cheese in this recipe in place of the 3 ounces of cheddar and 3 ounces of Gruyere).
But who’s counting. The important part is this mac is not want for cheese.
Some cheeses were chosen specifically for flavor (Pecorino), others for texture and creaminess (American), and some (like the Camembert) serve double duty. With a dash of paprika and cayenne pepper, this is unlike any macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had (except maybe in your dreams, and please tell me I’m not alone and y’all dream about mac ‘n cheese too?)
Also unlike other baked mac and cheeses where you transfer the cheese and pasta to a separate dish for baking, this one is cooked and baked in the same skillet. That’s one less messy dish for you to wash (or, in my case, for Taylor to wash), and one less obstacle getting in the way between you and a delicious skillet of homemade macaroni and cheese.
This recipe works in both 9 and 12 inch skillets (what you see pictured is a 12-inch). Although 10-inch would probably be perfect. If you use a 9-inch, just stir carefully, especially when you fold in the pasta, so you don’t lose any noodles down the side of the stove.
There are multiple points where you may think you f&@*!ed up, where your sauce looks chunky and grainy and downright disgusting. When you add the flour to the butter. When you add the milk to the roux. When you add the cheeses to the warm milk. When you think all hope is lost and the chunks will never go away…
It’ll all smooth out in the end, I promise.
Like most mac and cheeses, it is best served immediately. As it sits the cheese sauce will begin to separate, and while it’s no less delicious, the texture isn’t nearly as appetizing. Aside from using an entire block of that artificial cheese-that-shall-not-be-named, I haven’t found any way around this (other than, you know, eating it all immediately).
I will not call this the best macaroni and cheese, probably because it’s one of those recipes (much like brownies) that I continues to evolve each and every time I make it.
It is, however, the best macaroni and cheese I’ve made, so far.
- 8 ounces elbow pasta
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- salt and black pepper, to taste
- 3 ounces mild white cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1 cup shredded)
- 3 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 1 cup shredded)
- 2 ounces Pecorino cheese, finely shredded (about 3/4 cup shredded)
- 2 ounces Camembert cheese, rind removed and cut into small chunks
- 1 ounce (2 slices) white American cheese, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
- Place an oven rack in the top half of the oven. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
- Add macaroni and cook for 5 minutes or until just barely al dente. Strain and set aside.
- Heat butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet or oven-safe saucepan set over medium-high heat. When butter is melted and foamy, sprinkle over flour, whisking to incorporate into a smooth paste. Continue to whisk until frothy and light golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly drizzle in milk, whisking vigorously. If at any point the mixture clumps, continue to whisk until smooth before adding more milk. Continue whisking until all the milk has been added. Cook, whisking regularly, for 7 to 8 minutes or until sauce has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream and just barely starts to simmer around the edges. Whisk in cayenne, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
- Set aside 1/4 cup of cheese (a mix of cheddar, gruyere, and pecorino). Sowly add remaining cheese to skillet, one handful at a time, whisking well until melted and smooth. If the sauce still has noticeable chunks in it, return pan to low heat and continue whisking for no more than 1 to 2 minutes or until cheese is completely melted.
- Fold cooked macaroni into cheese sauce until evenly coated. Sprinkle with reserved shredded cheese and bread crumbs and broil on high for 4 to 5 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and breadcrumbs are golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.