Most of us have a soft spot for good old macaroni and cheese, and personal preference usually depends on what we grew up eating at potlucks, church dinners, or our grandmother’s table. Some folks insist on American cheese being the only cheese that can meld with macaroni, and some profess a strong affinity for a crispy breadcrumb topping that crunches up in the oven. Me? I’m a pretty straightforward, white-sauce-meets-pasta kind of gal, though I’ll put just about any kind of cheese into the sauce (anything that grates, anyway–no brie or fresh mozzarella). I like an extra layer of cheese over the top, and I’ve developed a tendency to add a dollop of grainy Creole mustard to the sauce before I stir in the macaroni; it sparks the sauce a little bit, just the way I like it.
If you know how to make a white sauce by heart, you can make all kinds of good things to stretch what you’ve got on hand into baked pastas, cream soups, or sauces for plain veggies. And if you start with sausage bits or bacon drippings instead of butter, you’ve got a basic cream sausage gravy, which means the best breakfast ever, in my heart.
- 1 pound macaroni or other short pasta, uncooked
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 cups low-fat milk
- 8 oz. grated cheese (I usually use a combination of mild cheddar and pepperjack)
- salt and black pepper to taste
- a few shakes of Tabasco sauce
- 2 teaspoons Creole mustard (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil in a stockpot. When the water boils, add the macaroni and cook for approximately 11 minutes, or until tender. Drain and set aside.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring with a whisk, for one minute. Gradually whisk in the milk and cook over medium heat for about 12 minutes, whisking almost constantly, until the mixture is smooth and a little thicker than heavy cream. Turn off heat and stir in most of the cheese, reserving about ½ cup to sprinkle over the top.
- Add salt, black pepper, Tabasco, and optional mustard to taste. Taste for seasoning--it should be a little tangy, because it'll mellow somewhat when mixed with all that pasta.
- Combine pasta and sauce, and pour into an oiled 2- to 3-quart casserole dish (it will seem very saucy, which is good because it thickens during baking and cooling). Bake uncovered at 350 for about 25 minutes, until hot and bubbling and the cheese on top is melted. If you want a crusty top, put the dish under the broiler for a few minutes.