This macaroni and cheese dish is a Frank family favorite. It appears—by request—in large quantities each year when we host a pre-meet pasta party for our daughter’s swim team. It is a regular request for birthday dinners and has traveled to a cabin in Northern Wisconsin during the Frank family vacation. It also played a role that is especially near and dear to my heart: I made mac and cheese for a celebratory dinner with the kids right before Phil and I flew to Florida to get married.
This Macaroni and Cheese is likely different from typical macs you’ve had before because it gets a subtle infusion of herbiness and other great flavors from steeping fresh herbs and garlic in the milk that I use to make the roux for the bechamel.
We have happily eaten this Macaroni and Cheese with and without meat. One favorite is to add smoked ham. Although I haven’t ever tried it, I’ve been told that lobster mac is one of the most sublime things I will ever taste. It’s on my bucket list. I like to use fun, unusual shapes like cavatappi or gemelli, but plain old macaroni gets the job done just fine.
This is also one of those baked pasta dishes that can act as a veggie-delivery double agent (more on that here). You can puree cauliflower and add it into your bechemel sauce without anyone being the wiser. You can also add peas, broccoli, asparagus, or zucchini, for a few examples—IF your family are good veggie eaters and/or don’t balk at having veggies THAT THEY CAN SEE in their pasta.
When we vacation, we like to cook at our destination as much as possible. We’ve done homemade pizzas (story coming soon!), breakfast casseroles, beer-can chicken, burgers—DUH—and, of course, macaroni and cheese. Macaroni and cheese travels well because you can make it in advance and freeze it covered with plastic wrap and aluminum foil. We carry it up to the cabin in a cooler and let it continue thawing in the refrigerator until the next day. All we have to do is discard the plastic wrap, mix the breadcrumbs with melted butter and cheese, sprinkle them over the top of the casserole, re-cover with foil and bake. YUM.
Whether you’re entertaining kids or simply in the mood for comfort food, this mac is sure to please.
For more ideas that will put your pantry to work, check out Easy Pantry Meals – Living Out of Your Pantry (and refrigerator and freezer)!
Mac and Cheese
- 1 lb. cavatappi
- 1 tbsp. salt - plus more for pasta water
- 4-5 grinds of black pepper
- 3 cups milk
- 1 cup cream
- 2 tsp. yellow mustard
- 8 tbsp. 1 stick butter, divided
- 6. tbsp. flour
- 1 small onion - finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic
- fresh herbs - e.g., a few sprigs of rosemary, sage, & thyme
- 1 lb. shredded sharp cheddar cheese - (see Recipe Note #1)
- 1 cup pecorino romano - divided
- 2 cups panko bread crumbs
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan with the herbs and garlic. Be careful not to let it scorch or foam over.
- In the meantime, bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook the cavatappi to "firm" according to the package directions.
- While the pasta is cooking, melt 6 tbsp. of the butter in another saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and saute until soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add in your flour and stir into the butter-onion mixture to make a roux. Stir for 2 minutes.
- Strain your milk mixture and slowly add it to the pan with the roux, whisking continuously. Add the mustard, salt, and pepper. Add in your cheddar, little by little, and 3/4 cups of the romano cheese. Stir constantly to avoid scorching until all cheese is melted.
- Melt the remaining butter (if you use the microwave, be careful to cover the butter, or it will spit and explode everywhere). Mix the panko breadcrumbs and remaining romano cheese into the butter, stirring with a fork to combine. Add your cheese mixture to the drained pasta; mix well. Pour mixture into a 13 x 9" casserole dish, and top with bread crumbs. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes until bubbly, and then pull off the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes, or until the topping is golden.
- Do not use pre-shredded cheese: these contain extra ingredients like corn starch to prevent the shreds from clumping. This will destroy any cheese sauce!
This dish is great for freezing. I go through step 4 above and let the assembled casserole cool slightly. Then I press some plastic wrap down over the surface of the mac and cheese, and cover the entire dish with aluminum foil. First, cool completely in the refrigerator, then transfer to the freezer. You can pull the casserole out to thaw up to 2 days in advance, then complete step 5. OR, you can take it directly from the freezer to the oven: remove the plastic wrap, top with breadcrumbs and cheese, and recover with foil. Bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour, then remove the foil and continue baking until the topping is golden.