I don’t know anything about holiday meal spreads in the North, but in the South, we’ve got a wide array of casseroles and weird combinations – seriously, who came up with “ambrosia”? – that make holiday feasts almost equal parts delicious and questionable.
But if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that mac and cheese is sacrosanct.
I came across this image the other day and nodded in fervent support before sharing it with a friend who knows full well that you can’t have just any ol’ mac & cheese, especially at Thanksgiving:
It’s not hard to see why macaroni and cheese works for everybody at every age. It’s noodles, butter, milk, and cheese. There are some seasonings involved (if you want it to be good) and it should be baked so that the bubbly cheese top gets a little crisp and brown. Simple and classic. Mild enough to appeal to picky toddlers and comforting enough to appease grownups who need a hug.
Admit it. You already want some.
Maybe you even stopped reading this post to go make a pot of it. If you’re still here, hang on a sec because I’m not just here to wax poetic about the ultimate comfort food. I want to share with you my favorite recipe for mac & cheese, which just happens to be mine.
I know. Every Southerner, maybe even every person, has her own recipe for mac & cheese, and it’s always the best. But trust me. This really is the best. And I can say that without too much conceit because it’s an adaptation of someone else’s recipe so I can’t take full credit.
A big chunk of credit goes to Kare from Kitchen Treaty for the inspiration for my recipe. Years ago, I stumbled across her recipe (“The Best Macaroni & Cheese Recipe Ever”) and made it faithfully as described on her blog the first couple times. Then, as often happens when I cook, I branched out and made it my own.
This is part culinary creativity but mostly stubbornness. I want to do everything my own way.
I’m also more of a “just throw it in and see if it works” kind of cook. Measuring specific amounts of spices isn’t really my thing. Thus, my method for mac & cheese was born, and it’s served me well over the years. I’ve already made this dish three times this month and will make it again for Thanksgiving with my family on Thursday.
If you’re bringing M&C to your holiday get-together and don’t know where to start, follow this recipe. If you’re a seasoned mac & cheese pro but want to shake things up this year, give this recipe a try. (And if you already have the perfect recipe for mac and cheese, then keep doing you because hey, if it ain’t broke…)
P.S. I snagged some photos of my mac & cheese in process as I made it for our Friendsgiving dinner this weekend, but I forgot to get a shot of the finished product. It’s a grievous error because that final shot of gooey, lightly browned noodles and cheese is really the money shot. Please use your imagination and pretend that it baked up well. I promise it did.
Without further ado, here’s my favorite recipe for mac & cheese.
Jennifer’s Favorite Mac & Cheese
Serves: 12-16 adults as a side
Total time: 1.5 to 2 hours
- 12 oz. (about a box and a half) of a ridged pasta, like jumbo elbows or corkscrew (the ridges are important because they soak up more sauce)
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
- ½ cup of all-purpose flour
- About 5 cups of whole milk (using a less fatty milk will work but it takes longer and honestly, why would you deprive yourself of delicious whole milk?)
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Dry mustard (actual powder, not the hot dog topping)
- Salt and pepper
- 6 cups of shredded cheddar cheese, preferably medium (you could use 2/3 mild and 1/3 sharp if you can’t find medium) and preferably not pre-shredded (it melts better)
Note on seasonings: These are to taste. I never measure how much of these seasonings I use, but in order of importance (and therefore amount), it’s salt, garlic powder, onion, mustard powder, pepper, and paprika. Taste as you go and adjust accordingly.
- Boil the pasta according to the box in a large pot, using salted water.
- While the pasta is boiling, shred the cheese.
- Drain the pasta and pour it into the casserole dish you’ll be baking it in later. The baking dish should be large and deep enough to hold all the pasta, so at least 13×9” or at least 3 quarts.
- Set your oven to 375F.
- Return the pot to the stove and set it to medium heat.
- Grab your phone or start a music playlist or queue up a movie because this next part is boring and tedious and you’ll need a distraction.
- Once the pot heats back up, add the butter and let it melt down. Then slowly add the flour, whisking constantly to make a roux (which is just a fancy word for equal parts fat and flour).
- Let the roux cook for a few seconds. If it’s clumpy, keep whisking until it’s smooth.
- Slowly add in the milk and your seasonings, still whisking constantly. You’ll be whisking for quite a while.
- Still whisking…
- Seriously, you’ll be whisking for about 10-15 minutes depending on the milk you used. Whole milk takes much less time, and if you do the roux correctly, the sauce will thicken more quickly. But even if you don’t do the roux exactly right (it’s happened to me), you’ll get a thick sauce eventually. Just keep whisking until you’ve got a sauce that doesn’t move on its own. You should be able to pass the whisk through and the sauce stays put, nearly gravy consistency.
- Once you’ve got your milk gravy, take the pot off the heat (and turn off the stove… ahem) and stir in about 4-5 cups of the cheese. Stir until the cheese is completely melted.
- Pour your pasta into the sauce and stir until it looks like the noodles are taking a bath in it.
- Pour the mixture back into your baking dish and smooth out evenly.
- Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top.
- Pop that dish into the oven and let it bake for about 30-45 minutes. The cheese on top should be bubbly and lightly browned. This might take longer depending on your oven (or shorter if your oven is an overachiever like mine).
- Pull it out once it’s baked all the way, and let it sit for a few minutes before diving in. Give that cheese a chance to congeal a bit on top.
- Enjoy! Try to share some of it. This dish is meant to be eaten with people you like, but you know, I won’t judge if it’s all for you.