A classic macaroni and cheese recipe with a smooth creamy-cheesy macaroni filling. I added an extra step of infusing the milk with fresh herbs and garlic to develop extra flavor in the sauce and complement the cheeses. Sprinkle toasted breadcrumbs seasoned with parmesan cheese, ground garlic and dried herds over the macaroni and cheese before baking in the oven. The breadcrumbs add a welcome crunch and textural contrast to the delicious and gooey macaroni.
Make macaroni and cheese with any tubular shape pasta like elbows, shells cavatappi or a small penne or ziti shapes are nice. But it is important to undercook the pasta before you add it to the sauce. The pasta will continue to cook while baking in the oven so undercooking it beforehand prevents the macaroni from getting soggy and limp.
Macaroni is a great make ahead casserole and you can make it two days in advance. Store in the refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap. Make the casserole up to the point before putting on the breadcrumb topping. You can also freeze it for up to 2 months. Make sure you freeze it in a freezer-to-oven safe baking dish.
If refrigerated, take the casserole out of the refrigerator 30 minutes before baking to bring up to room temperature. Remove the plastic wrap then add the breadcrumbs. Bake covered in foil for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking until hot and bubbly.
If frozen, remove the plastic wrap and cover the casserole with foil bake for one hour, then remove the foil and bake until hot and bubbly.
Best eaten hot on the day it is made.
Store leftover macaroni and cheese covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. The sauce gets drier, but it heats up well in a microwave.
Heat a large stock pot filled with water until boiling. Season with salt and cook the pasta for half the amount of recommended time. Drain the pasta. Shake out any excess water from the colander then drizzle about 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil over the pasta and toss to coat. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat up the milk and cream with the sage, bay leaves, and smashed garlic clove in a saucepan to just shy of boiling. Turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 5 minutes, making sure the milk does not boil. Turn off the heat then let the milk and herbs steep for 15-20 minutes.
While you are waiting for the pasta to cook, make the topping. If making fresh breadcrumbs, take the bread slices and rip each slice into four pieces then place in a bowl of a food processor. Process the bread until it becomes crumbly but not gummy. Add the melted butter, parmesan cheese, and dried herbs if using, and process until combined. Pour the breadcrumbs into a small bowl and set aside.
If you are using panko breadcrumbs, pour the melted butter into a small bowl with the breadcrumbs and mix together. Add the parmesan cheese and dried herbs if using. Mix together and set aside.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, over medium heat. Once the butter has melted and stopped sizzling, add the flour and whisk to blend. Continue to whisk the butter and flour to make a roux for about 5 minutes. You want to remove the flour taste and smell. Be careful not to brown the roux.
Remove the herbs from the milk and add the milk into the roux a little at a time. Whisk the milk and roux continuously to thoroughly mix them together between each addition. Make sure you get into the crevasses of the pan to mix in all the milk and flour. Cook the sauce for about 5 minutes or until the sauce thickens. You know it is done when you dip a wooden spoon in the sauce then run your finger across the back of the spoon. If the sauce does not run and break the line, the sauce is done.
Once you have a thick sauce with a smooth texture, add the ground mustard, and hot sauce (if using), and a few rounds of freshly ground black pepper. Whisk them into the sauce and taste. Add the grated cheese in increments whisking the cheese and sauce thoroughly between each addition. Wait until the cheese has melted between each addition as well. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings as needed.
Scrape the cooked macaroni into a bowl with the cheese sauce then stir to mix. If you are adding add-ins like crispy bacon or broccoli, add them now. Pour the mixture into a buttered baking dish.
Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over the top of the macaroni in an even layer.
Place the macaroni filled baking dish on a rimmed sheet pan to collect any sauce that bubbles over while baking. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until the topping is brown and crispy and the macaroni is bubbly. The internal temperature should register 165°F (74°C) Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
And then some:
If you want to have cheesy strands in your creamy mac and cheese, add up to a half pound ((225 g) of cheese cut into ½ inch cubes to the macaroni mixture and stir to combine.
Add a half cup (125 ml)of grated Parmesan Reggiano to the Macaroni and cheese sauce before scraping it into the baking dish.
Caramelize two onions, then add them to the mac and cheese before baking.
Add blanched broccoli or cauliflower flowerettes to the mac and cheese before baking.
Cook 6 slices of bacon, not thick bacon, until crispy. Chop up into half-inch pieces. Add the crispy bacon to the mac and cheese before baking and proceed as directed. Or try fried pieces of prosciutto.
Add frozen peas to the boiling pasta water 2 minutes before you stop cooking the macaroni. Drain the peas with the macaroni and set aside to cool.
Add 1½ lbs (750 g) cooked lobster meat to the macaroni and cheese. Season the cheese sauce with nutmeg instead of hot sauce. Add ½ teaspoon of ground nutmeg.
Add sliced tomatoes over the top of the mac and cheese then sprinkle with breadcrumbs before baking. (Ina Garten's recipe)