Baked Macaroni and Cheese

It’s holiday time! Around this time of year, I see people post on social media complaining about their mac and cheese they made, or in search of the best macaroni and cheese recipe. Stop here, because my friends, this is it. It’s a dish I don’t make very often. Once a year, in fact. I allow myself to eat in one time a year with no regrets.

I first learned of this recipe when watching Cooks Illustrated on a lazy Sunday afternoon on PBS. A lot of thought goes into this recipe. Most complaints when making macaroni and cheese is a bland taste, or a greasy feel when the cheese melts (especially when you use cheeses like gruyere). If there are leftovers, almost always the cheese separates leaving a gloppy oily mess. If you have leftovers of this, it reheats beautifully.

Follow the recipe exactly. Two things will make it the very best macaroni and cheese you ever had. Evaporated milk in lieu of straight up milk allows the casserole to be creamy, yet sturdy. When you buy your cheeses, buy them in block form and grate the cheese yourself. You will be tempted to buy the pre-shredded stuff to make this go quick, but there are additives added to pre-shredded cheese that allows it to separate easily. You don’t want that. When I get my American cheese, I just tell the person at the deli counter to give me the amount I need unsliced in a block.

Actually, I lie. I would make this more than one time a year if we had a party to go to. Not likely in the near future, but I’m hopeful for better times ahead. Happy Holidays!

Homemade breadcrumbs blanket this amazing mac.
make a roux with butter and flour
evaporated milk is the key to a sturdy yet creamy mac and cheese

add in your pasta and the reserved pasta water.
bake right away but I made the day before. If you make ahead, increase your reserved pasta water to a full cup.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (Cooks Illustrated)

  • 3–4 slices hearty white sandwich bread , torn into large pieces
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter , 4 tablespoons melted
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 1/4 cups shredded American cheese , (about 5 ounces)
  • 3/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Pulse bread, melted butter, and Parmesan cheese in food processor until ground to coarse crumbs. Transfer to bowl.

2. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add 1 tbsp salt and macaroni to boiling water and cook until al dente, about 6 minutes. Reserve 1/2 c macaroni water, then drain and rinse macaroni in colander under cold running water. Set aside.

3. Melt remaining 4 tbsp butter in pot over medium-high heat until foaming. Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture turns light brown, about 1 minute. Slowly whisk in evaporated milk, hot sauce, nutmeg, mustard, and 2 tsp salt and cook until mixture beings to simmer and is slightly thickened, about 4 minutes.  Off heat, whisk in cheeses and reserved cooking water until cheese melts. Stir in macaroni until completely coated.

4. Transfer macaroni to 13 by 9 inch baking dish and top evenly with bread crumb mixture. Bake until cheese is bubbling and top is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Make ahead: Follow the recipe through step 3. Because the pasta will continue to absorb moisture, increase the reserved pasta water to one cup. Pour the filling in a 13×9 baking pan. It will look really soupy. Cover with plastic wrap, putting the wrap directly on the noodles. Put the breadcrumbs in a container or bag and Put both in the fridge for up to 1 day. When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown and bubbly.