Forget the diet Macaroni and Cheese


[Update]: Via Yoko's blog, I got to the recent Slate article about a New York Times article (unfortunately already archived so you'd have to pay to read it) about macaroni and cheese. That recipe apparently used no bechamel. I know that bechamel is a pain in the ass to make, but really, it's worth it. As the Slate article quoting the NY Times article says, a mac and cheese is "Nothing more than tender elbows of pasta suspended in pure molten cheddar, with a chewy, golden-brown crust of cheese on top." This recipe produces exactly that. Maybe we should start campaigning for someone to produce canned bechamel...

I have a sneaky fondness for a lot of pre-prepacked, definitely not-gourmet foods...canned ravioli in tomato sauce, frozen fish sticks, instant ramen, canned corned beef, Marmite...the list goes on and on. There is one pre-packaged food that I detest though: boxed macaroni and cheese.

What makes boxed mac and cheese evil? It's that horrible powdered "cheese" sauce. It has an acrid undertone and a slighty grainy texture, and the most popular kinds have that neon-yellow almost chartreuse color to it that is quite revolting.

But the worst thing about packaged mac and cheese is that it has somehow given people the misconception that a real mac and cheese is quick and easy convenience food. I beg to differ. While you can have a quite edible cheesy pasta (dump a knob of butter, maybe some cream, and a ton of grated cheese on hot pasta), a real mac and cheese is occasion food. Its preparation, while not difficult, involves quite a few steps and takes a long time. Also this is really what we call around our house "fuck the diet" food (I've cleaned it up a tad for the title of this entry though!)- high fat, high cholesterol, high carb, high everything. My general theory on eating is, if it's high-(bad things) you want the very best version that you can get. Don't waste all those calories on inferior versions.

The characteristics of a really good macaroni gratin (as it was known when I was growing up in Japan) or mac and cheese are that it should have a gooey, unctuous, cheesy inside, topped by a crispy, intensely cheesy crust. This version fulfills those requirements. Serve with a plain green salad. You will not need anything else, unless it's a good red wine. Be prepared to compensate with spare eating for days afterwards. To my mind, this is the perfect thing to serve at a casual dinner party with close friends.


Note that this makes a lot of mac and cheese. You can serve it at a party (it would serve 8 to 10 hungry people), or freeze the leftovers, cut into portion-sized pieces and wrapped individually. It heats up nicely in the microwave, filling the house with that gorgeous cheesy smell every time.

Assemble the components of the mac and cheese in this order.

  1. Make the bechamel - you can do this a day in advance.
  2. Start the water boiling for the macaroni.
  3. Heat up the bechamel, and add the cheese - you don't want this to boil though, or the cheese will turn a bit grainy.
  4. In the meantime, cook the macaroni, and heat the oven to 180°C / about 350° F.
  5. Mix the macaroni with the cheese sauce, and put in the baking pans. Top with grated cheese.
  6. Bake for 45 minutes.

For the Sauce Mornay (cheese sauce)

  • 8 cups of Bechamel sauce
  • 450g or about 1 lb (I refer you to the title of this entry...this is not diet food) of grated aged Gruyère cheese. I know that Cheddar is traditional, and you can use an aged, non-dyed version if you wish, but Gruyère makes it truly heavenly.
  • Tabasco sauce

Plus you will need an additional 3 cups or so of grated cheese - a mix of your main cheese plus Parmesano Reggiano, or a Grana Padano, would work great. And last but not least, 1 box (500g, or 1 lb) of small elbow macaroni.

Prepare the bechamel following these directions. While still hot, stir in the cheese and add a few drops of Tabasco. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

In the meantime, cook a box of elbow macaroni (1lb or 500g) until just a bit before al dente stage - it should still be a bit chewy, since it will continue to cook and soften in the sauce.

Mix the cooked and drained macaroni in the cheese sauce. You will notice that there is the sauce to macaroni ratio is quite high - this is because the macaroni absorbs some of the moisture from the sauce while baking, and accounts for the unctuous texture you will taste later.

Pour the mixed pasta and sauce into baking pans. To avoid spillage, the pans should not be more than 2/3rds full, so you may need more than 1 pan. Top with the cheese reserved for topping - don't be shy. You can add breadcrumbs (panko) if you want extra crunch.

Bake in the preheated 180°C / 350°F oven for about 45 minutes until the top is a golden brown. At this point your whole house will be filled with that golden-cheesy smell. Take out of the oven, and let stand for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Note: if your guests are the type that think an all-cheese main dish is somehow lacking, add some uncooked chicken breast pieces to the bechamel a couple of minutes before you add the macaroni. This turns this into a chicken and cheese macaroni gratin, suitable for the carnivore.

Filed under:  cheese pasta

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Oh-- my mouth is salivating, and my stomach is turning just at the thought of macaroni and cheese.

But it's true-- if you're going to forego the diet, eat something truly worthwhile. In fact, my friends and I said as much this evening, as we bought gelati for dessert. ooh.

Yoko is absolutely spot-on. When you do "sin", do it with the best possilbe stuff...

Concerning Gruyère, it is important to use only a very ripe quality (in Switzerland, it is the surchoix quality), which means that the cheese has been aged for at least 8 months.

Hi Maki,
We had Cheese and Maccaroni TWICE last week and it was sooooo good! The breadcrumbs are essential in my opinion - the same goes for the big bowl of mixed green salads with crisp bacon. So I can tell myself, I ate something green and healthy ... ;)

Maccaroni cheese is soo wicked yet so delicious. When I was sick last year and had to put on some weight my friend cooked me a huge portion which I ate over a week, I put on 4 kilos.

I'm from Canada (where we call macaroni and cheese by it's proper name; "dinner") and I have to defend the powdered cheese. The concept is gross, but if you're raised on the stuff, it's the only way to go. It's the only way I can fathom anyone liking something like Marmite without getting sick to my stomach. With butter and whole milk, it might as well be cheese!

I'm German, my boyfriend's American (Kansas) and he prefers the orange artificial cheese in his Mac and cheese. Since he's not the best cook, I thought I'd surprise him one day with a more sophisticated version of this recipe (real parmigiano, a little white wine in the sauce etc) - but it was a total failure since he grew up on eating the powdered stuff. He liked my cooking, but he wouldn't recognize it as Macaroni and Cheese *sigh*.

I wouldn't personally add chicken to your recipe, even though I think it would probably taste well, but I think not every recipe needs meat... Unfortunately, when you cook for other people as well, you will have to take their tastes into account, too. What is it with men, that when I ask them what they want to eat, they always say "something meaty!!!" - are they conditioned to say this xD?

On another note, I definitely recognize M'n'C as a full meal, but when I came to the US for the first time, I attended a BBQ and they served it as a side dish for Hamburgers and sausages... I was longing so hard for some fruit or a green salad ^^.

i knew that confessing to liking Marmite would get me into trouble. :P

I confess to liking the boxed stuff (Annie's or some other "organic; the neon Kraft stuff does have a weird chemical tang and grittiness), but I put it in an entirely different category of food from the homemade, casserole type.

Pasta with cream, grated parm/romano and a knob of butter is Alfredo, and very good it is, too. I like mine with a lashing of paprika.

Oh, this looks amazing. I love cheesy food! I've never tried my hand at making Bechamel sauce, but for this I may have to give it a go.

That sounds like a great recipe I'd like to try. But are you sure about 8 cups of Bechamel? That's equivalent to about 2 litres (66 ounces)! That seems like alot to me.

It does indeed use that much bechamel, because the pasta absorbs quite a lot of it. It does make a lot of mac and cheese though (10 generous servings, or even more if you make it part of a multicourse meal or as a side dish) and leftovers do freeze very nicely. But, it's not really something a normal human being should be eating everyday either. As I say in the article, this is Special Occasion Food.

I tired it and it was great! You are right about it needing alot of Bechamel. I used sharp cheddar instead of gruyere. Next time I would ease up on the cheese topping though. I found it way too salty for my liking. But other than that, its much easier to make it than I thought. Thanks! 'real' mac and cheese!

I'm glad it went well. :)

Very well written. Maybe the humor in the recipe will encourage someone to leave the crap in a blue box behind.

I've been using a recipe similar to this for a while now, but instead putting it all in one big pan, I divide it into the cups of a muffin tin. I still bake it at 350, but it doesn't take near as long. When it's cool, I throw two of the macaroni cups at a time into sandwich bags, and freeze them all. I just pull them out and nuke them when I want a quick lunch.

Hi Maki!

In Spain we have pre-canned bechamel. Well it's not really canned, it's sold in tetra-bricks. It's 'Knorr' brand, i think. Probably you can find it in Switzerland.

I find it kind of "solid", but i think in the reverse they explain how to liquidify it a bit :)

Funny, until reading this, I thought "mac and cheese" was a cheeseburger (like a Big Mac) - we call it "macaroni cheese" (no "and") - the confusion one tiny word can create!

PS - I agree it's worth making properly - I've never had a ready-made fresh or frozen packaged macaroni cheese that had any flavour to it.

The last I looked, somebody was making canned "white sauce" sold in grocery stores. Not very good, as I recall. But I haven't looked for it in years, maybe it's gone.