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gettin’ all cheesy over here

Recipe: mac and cheese (two ways)

We are basically following the rhythmic swing of a pendulum between snow and sun. What I’m preparing at home mimics this oscillation: salads and springy foods to soups, bakes, and comfort foods. Comfort foods like mac and cheese. Mac and cheese is like chocolate cake for me – I’m always on the prowl for the best recipe.

snowy day? make mac and cheese

Growing up, I was aware of two kinds of mac and cheese: Kraft mac and cheese and the kind that you got in school cafeterias. I can’t really endorse either one. It wasn’t until the last decade that I’ve begun to enjoy mac and cheese. That’s probably because I’ve been eating at better restaurants and they put things like lobster in their mac and cheese. I tend to prefer the creamy versions that have a baked crust of cheese and bread crumbs. And I like penne over elbow macaroni because elbow macaroni is squirrely. So when I see a recipe titled “World’s Best Mac and Cheese”, I’m eager to put it to the test.

cheddar, jack, butter, flour, salt, chipotle powder, garlic powder, whole milk

grate the cheese

two cheeses at the ready

This version of mac and cheese is based on a bechamel sauce made of butter, flour, and milk. When the sauce is hot and thickened, the cheeses are stirred in and you have your cheese sauce. It is lightly seasoned with some garlic powder and chipotle powder. I didn’t have chipotle powder, but I found some in the bulk spice section of my local Whole Foods. [I’m pretty sure I could find it at Savory Spice Shop, which I shall do in the future because I love them.] It adds a dimension of spice and smoke to the dish.

whisking the flour into the butter to make a roux

whisking in the milk

stir in the cheeses

adding chipotle and garlic powders

You can make the cheese sauce ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator for up to three days in an airtight container. Since the sauce recipe makes four cups and the mac and cheese recipe only calls for two cups, I saved half of it for later (another batch of mac and cheese won’t hurt anybody). From here, it’s easy street. Cook the pasta as you normally would, but drain it two minutes earlier because it will continue to cook when you bake it. Mix the pasta with the cheese sauce and spread it in a baking dish. Top it off with some shredded cheddar and Gruyère and then sprinkle a little chipotle powder over it.

penne, gruyère, cheddar, cheese sauce, chipotle powder

add the cheese sauce to the pasta

mix well

a touch of chipotle powder

Bake for twenty minutes and you’ve got creamy, gooey, melty mac and cheese. I liked the chipotle powder, but I think I prefer to keep it on the milder end. I’m not crazy for overpowering smokey flavors. If you don’t like smokey at all, then perhaps try red chile powder instead. If you don’t like heat, maybe a dash of paprika will work. The main thing that kept me from believing that this was the world’s BEST mac and cheese was the bechamel sauce texture. It was ever so slightly gritty and I wanted a buttery smooth sauce. It’s possible that I hadn’t cooked my roux enough, although light brown is supposed to suffice.

version #1: not bad

I wasn’t satisfied with the recipe as it was, so I looked around for alternative sauces. There are archives of people debating the virtues of bechamel cheese sauce versus custard-based cheese sauce for mac and cheese. Custard-based sounded right up my alley, so I started round two. I opted for fresh garlic over garlic powder and reduced the flour to a tablespoon.

cheddar, eggs, butter, milk, salt, flour, garlic (not pictured: jack cheese)

mashing coarse salt into the minced garlic to make a paste

sauté the butter and garlic paste

stir in the flour

Add the milk to the butter and stir until it just starts to boil. Turn the heat off and place two egg yolks in a medium bowl. Slowly pour the hot milk into the bowl while constantly whisking the yolks and the milk together. This process is called tempering (not the same as tempering chocolate) and the purpose is to heat the yolks a little at a time so they don’t curdle (cook) from the shock of adding the hot liquid all at once. When half of the milk mixture has been combined with the yolks, pour it all back into the saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat. Scrape the bottom of the pan to keep the custard from cooking. It will thicken noticeably in a few minutes and that’s when you add the cheese.

pour the milk into the pan

tempering the egg yolks

stir in the cheeses

I held back on the chipotle powder this time in the hopes that the garlic would have a little more presence, although I think a pinch might have been nice in the sauce. From this point, the recipe is the same as the first version: cook the pasta two minutes shy of being done, mix the drained pasta with the sauce, pile it into a baking dish. Cheddar and Gruyère are distributed over the top and then some bread crumbs, because I like the crunch.

spread the penne and sauce evenly in the dish

finishing with some bread crumbs

Both versions are very good and it’s a matter of your own preference – bechamel or custard. Try your own favorite combination of cheeses too. I’m a neophyte when it comes to cheese, so I tend to stick to the standards. There are probably way more impressive ones to incorporate. The custard-based mac and cheese is smoother to me, although I think I’d like mine to be a little more saucy (maybe bump the milk to three cups and the egg yolks from two to three). Of the two versions, I prefer #2. World’s best mac and cheese? Probably not, but they’re damn good. The search goes on!

custard-based mac and cheese

Mac and Cheese (Two Ways)
[print recipe]
from World’s Best Mac and Cheese

version #1: bechamel sauce version

butter to grease baking dish
6 oz. penne
2 cups Beecher’s cheese sauce (see below)
1 oz. (1/4 cup) cheddar cheese, grated
1 oz. (1/4 cup) Gruyère cheese, grated
1/4-1/2 tsp chipotle powder

beecher’s cheese sauce
makes 4 cups – you only need 2 cups for the recipe
4 tbsps unsalted butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
14 oz. (3 1/2 cups) cheddar cheese, grated or shredded
2 oz. (1/2 cup) jack cheese, grated or shredded
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/4-1/2 tsp chipotle powder
1/8 tsp garlic powder

Make the sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan over high heat. When the butter is completely melted and begins to bubble, add the flour all at once and whisk it for 2 minutes. It will turn brownish, just keep whisking. Slowly add the milk while constantly whisking. Continue to whisk until the sauce thickens which should be about 10 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat. Stir in the cheddar and jack cheeses, salt, chipotle powder, and garlic powder until the cheese is melted (about 3 minutes). This sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Makes 4 cups.

Make the mac and cheese: Butter an 8-inch square or otherwise shaped baking dish. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cook the penne 2 minutes less than the package instructions indicate. Drain the pasta and rinse in cold water. Place the pasta in a large bowl and gently mix with 2 cups of cheese sauce. Pour the pasta and cheese sauce into the baking dish. Sprinkle the cheddar and Gruyère cheeses evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle the chipotle powder over the cheeses. Bake for 20 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

version #2: custard-based sauce version

butter for baking dish
6 oz. penne
custard cheese sauce
1 oz. (1/4 cup) cheddar cheese, grated
1 oz. (1/4 cup) Gruyère cheese, grated
1/4 cup bread crumbs

custard cheese sauce
makes 2+ cups
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsps unsalted butter
1 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
2 egg yolks
8 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
1 oz. jack cheese, shredded
black pepper to taste
pinch chipotle powder

Make the custard cheese sauce: On a cutting board, sprinkle the salt over the minced garlic and mash it with the flat of a knife. Place the butter in a saucepan and melt it over medium high heat. Add the salt and garlic paste, stirring until the garlic becomes fragrant. Stir in the flour. Slowly pour the milk into the pan, whisking constantly until just starts to boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Place the two egg yolks in a medium bowl. While whisking the yolks, ladle a cup of the hot milk into the bowl and make sure the yolks are completely incorporated. Add another ladle of milk into the bowl while whisking. Pour the egg yolk-milk mixture back into the saucepan and set the flame on medium high. Stir with the whisk constantly until the sauce thickens (a few minutes). Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the cheddar and jack cheeses. Add a little black pepper and a pinch of chipotle powder to taste. Makes 2+ cups.

Make the mac and cheese: Butter an 8-inch square or otherwise shaped baking dish. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cook the penne 2 minutes less than the package instructions indicate. Drain the pasta and rinse in cold water. Place the pasta in a large bowl and gently mix with the custard cheese sauce. Pour the pasta and cheese sauce into the baking dish. Sprinkle the cheddar and Gruyère cheeses evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Bake for 20 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

crab mac and cheese martha’s mac and cheese fondue butternut squash pasta sauce

34 nibbles at “gettin’ all cheesy over here”

  1. sara says:

    This looks amazing! I’ve never tried mac and cheese with a custard sauce…sounds amazing!

  2. Sherry says:

    Whenever I make a bechamel baked mac & cheese, it always ends up just a bit grainy. I’ve tried different cheeses, different fat content milk/cream and the sauce is so nice and creamy when I mix it with the pasta but then after I bake it, it goes grainy. So I’ve stopped baking my mac & cheese and that seems to work well for me.

  3. Allie says:

    This is maybe gonna be a weird question, but I remember you’ve mentioned that you’re lactose intolerant and yet I always see such yummy recipes on your site with lots of dairy – I usually don’t drink milk either so I’m wondering how you do it??

  4. magpie says:

    here’s a third way, that i rather love and have never seen elsewhere: – it uses raw pasta and fluid milk and a lot of cheese. i confess that i usually skew the ratio of cheese to pasta that this recipe calls for – a half pound of pasta to a pound of cheese seems like overkill to me!

  5. Trolleira says:

    The research goes on… I like that! Did you ever try the german version of mac and cheese: Käsespätzle?
    More pure on cheese and noodles you won`t get! Comfort food ala Germany!

    See you on my new blog?!?

    Greetings from Brazil!

  6. Michelle says:

    I think if I made this, I would prefer the bechamel version. Yumm. I’m going to make this sometime this week!

  7. Casey says:

    I’ve never made a custard mac and cheese I will have to give it a try!

  8. Theresa says:

    Like you, I am on a never-ending quest to find the BEST mac & cheese out there. When I visited Seattle last year, we hit up Beecher’s in Pike Place and sampled their World’s Best Mac & Cheese because I had to. Had. To. I see you’ve found their recipe :) But I have to tell you, you’re missing the best, most important ingredient – Beecher’s Flagship cheese! OMG. I’m a hardcore cheese lover and that cheese is life changing. I smuggled a pound back to the East coast with me after out trip, and I’ve been craving it ever since. It is amazingly sharp, nutty, creamy, and fantastic. If you can get your hands on some, I highly recommend it!

    As for custard vs. bechamel – I like them both! I find some bechamels are creamier than others, and I usually prefer stove-top mac & cheese. I think Beecher’s World’s Best Mac & Cheese was the first baked mac & cheese I’ve ever loved!

    Ugh, now I’m craving mac & cheese ferociously. :-P

  9. Mika says:

    It’s interesting that the last thing that I posted was about Macaroni and Cheese… but might I suggest Diane’s recipe? I loved it :)

  10. Chris R says:

    Like you, I have tried mac and cheese every which way. I tend to dislike the custard variety because they can taste “eggy”. After lots of experimenting, I found that making a white sauce with cornstarch is my favorite method. It’s creamy without being pasty and the cheese flavor really comes through.

  11. Rocky Mountain Woman says:

    I’ve made many o mac n cheese recipes in my life, but never one that is custard based. Must try!!!

  12. marla says:

    HOLY WOW! This is comfort food at it’s finest….

  13. Kitty says:

    I owe my borderline lactose tolerance to eating my weight in Cornell ice cream and Beecher’s mac and cheese.

    I am also super excited to see this unexpected intersection of my favorite blog and favorite lunch!

    You are absolutely right that the Beecher’s sauce tends to be gritty. Their restaurant + cheese factory is kept chilly, so every bowl is a race between your stomach and the speedily congealing grit. I dunno if it’s the WORLD’S BEST mac and cheese (could use crunch, for one), but it is damn good and was the first to show me that mac and cheese could be good. A whole new world of delicious. That custard sauce is a tempting possibility.

    By the way, Beecher’s talks up their mac, but they actually have the world’s best…chocolate chip cookies.

  14. Kiran @ says:

    I prefer the 2nd version of mac and cheese. Looks so comforting!

  15. Yii-Huei says:

    Oh my this looks and sounds sinfully delicious. I love mac and cheese, it will always be one of my favourite comfort foods!

  16. Chung-Ah | Damn Delicious says:

    Both are amazing! I honestly can’t choose which one is better – I love them all!

  17. Cindi says:

    If I could only have one food I would probably choose mac and cheese for life. ;-) I have always made mine from scratch (hate the boxed stuff!) and like you am always on the hunt for the best recipe. I made a recipe the other night that is very similar to your last one ~ I didn’t realize I was making a bechamel sauce until I was {literally} in the thick of it. Mine was buttery and creamy and omg so yum! Like you, I like the top a little crunchy and the insides nice and creamy. Now if I could just eliminate the calories… Thanks for sharing your recipes!!

  18. Christine says:

    Lately I’ve been unsatisfied with my mac and cheese attempts (always a roux) so maybe it’s time to try a custard. I don’t use the monterey jack though, even though it does probably make it more smooth – just lots and lots of cheddar with gruyere if I have it and some parmeggiano. I skip garlic in favor of a bit of minced onion or a minced shallot sauteed in the butter. And, I throw in a pinch of dried mustard and cayenne. The cayenne gives it a little kick without detracting from the cheddar taste.

    And man, now I want macaroni and cheese!

  19. Science Teacher Mommy says:

    I have two favorite cheeses I combine with white and orange cheddar for my home made mac and cheese–gouda for that faint and delightful smokiness without overpowering spice and fontina because it just melts so well.

  20. marissa says:

    I just did the raw pasta version but with out the recipe. It worked beautifully. I was raised w the bechamel vs and that is how I make it most often … But after the one pot way I may not. Threw some cracker crumbs on last and done!

  21. Melanie says:

    I’ve always added a teaspoon or two of horseradish sauce to the cheese sauce for a bit of extra bite. Subtle and tasty.

  22. brenda s 'okie in colorado' says:

    If you haven’t tried Capital Grill’s lobster mac n cheese, YOU MUST, ASAP!!!

  23. Sophie says:

    I’ve been cooking bechamel-based mac and cheese since I was eight :) It was one of the first things I learned to cook. I always did mine stove-top style, not baking it, though the recipe is basically idential to yours here and could be easily topped and baked. What I learned, though, was how to avoid that grittiness. It took almost 20 years of practice but the solution was simple — heated milk! I found that cold milk reacted with the flour to cause a grittiness, but using warmed milk (does not even have to come to a simmer — I just microwave it for a few minutes) has produced silky-smooth results every time. Of course, I can’t speak for what happens after baking.

    I love your blog! I’ve got to try this custard version — sounds very decadent!

  24. jenyu says:

    Sherry – yeah, that’s a possibility. I like the baked crust though :\

    Allie – I am lactose intolerant, yes. I don’t have problems with yogurt or hard to medium hard cheeses. Cream and milk and soft cheeses can really do me in, though. It’s not always guaranteed, but it happens more often than not. Most of the time I will make dishes like these and taste them for quality and that generally doesn’t bother me (although sometimes it does). Jeremy usually winds up finishing most of it (unless it’s dessert and then I give a good deal away). There are a few things that are worth the stomach ache, like rice pudding :)

    magpie – ah, the half pound of pasta is only for half of the sauce recipe (so it’s half pound pasta to half pound of cheese).

    Trolleira – No, I’ve never tried that before. Ongoing research for sure :) I rarely have time to visit blogs these days, but will try to stop by some time!

    Theresa – Hrm, now I’ll have to go looking for that cheese!

    Mika – yeah, I tend to like baked versions to stove-top versions, but I always trust any recipe from Diane :)

    Chris – thanks for the tip!

    Kitty – ha ha, thanks for the beta!

    Cindi – you’re so cute, Cindi :)

    Christine – Nice! I like reading how everyone has a slightly different way to make mac and cheese!

    Science Teacher Mommy – if you like the smokiness from the gouda, then the chipotle powder is right up your alley.

    brenda – I wonder if it’s as good as Mizuna’s?

    Sophie – huh, interesting. I’ll have to experiment some more then!

  25. Ashley B says:

    I make mac and cheese, a lot. I go with the bechamel style sauce, and have never had an issue with graininess. I found that using margarine instead of butter helps keep the sauce smooth. Also, you don’t need to shred the cheese before putting in the sauce. Cubes work just as well and can be a major time savor. I suggest trying the margarine next time you do a bechamel sauce. You should see a big difference.

  26. mjskit says:

    What a perfect day for the ultimate comfort! Both dishes look delicious!

  27. Eva says:

    Hi- I have eaten a decent amount of Mac and Cheese but the best ever was one I made for Christmas dinner a few years ago. My sister in law handed me a recipe for Flemings Chipotle Mac and Cheese. It is not low cal in any way, but resulted in swoon worthy mac and cheese. The chipotle is only on the breadcrumb topping giving it a bit of heat and smoke, but not pervasive! Google the recipe and I’m sure you will LOVE it!

  28. Rachael @ Set the Table says:

    Oh my gosh STOP IT. I’m sitting here in bed catching up on my blog reading and totally drooling over these mac & cheese photos. And it’s snowing outside, which makes me want some even more. I’ll be having cheese-filled dreams tonight, thankyouverymuch.

  29. alex says:

    Very interesting about the bechamel vs custard style sauces. I usually do the bechamel sauce. I, too, don’t care for the chipotle powder, so I substitute smoked paprika instead.

    I also get the same results as the first commenter. If I don’t bake the mac n cheese, I don’t get the grainy sauce. Been thinking about hitting the top with a torch to see if I can get the crunchy top without baking the whole dish. :-)

    Definitely going to try the custard sauce too.

  30. Olga says:

    Nice photos and both dishes look absolutely mouthwatering. I’ve never tried chipotle in my mac and cheese.

    I use the Martha Stewart or Ina Garten’s recipes, they’re almost the same recipe made with with gruyere and vintage white sharp white cheddar. But I add a crushed whole clove of garlic and a medium bay leaf or two small leaves and cook them in the bechamel and fish them out when the bechamel’s done.

    I don’t add nutmeg, just some Dijon or regular mustard powder, salt and freshly ground pepper. The bay leaf adds a delicious depth of flavor. It’s really good and everybody raves about it. :)

  31. Lali says:

    Hey Jen!

    So I tried your custard sauce a few nights ago (with cheddar and smoked gouda — yum!) and upped the number of yolks and milk as you suggested & even used way less pasta (I also like it creamyyy). Just like this it was PERFECT, but I think something about the baking process dries the custard/egg based sauce out in the end. Gonna keep experimenting.

    Here in Oakland we have a mac and cheese place called Homeroom where all the mac’s are baked, creamy/not grainy and reheat well/somehow stay creamy as leftovers too! (I KNOW! WHAT KIND OF WITCHCRAFT?!)


  32. Katie says:

    I tried version one last night and it was great! I used all cheddar except 1oz of Romano for the top. I halved the cheese sauce recipe since I didn’t want extra. I ended up not halving the ancho chili powder (I didn’t have any chipotle powder) and we love garlic so I put extra garlic powder. I didn’t put any more chili powder on top because I hadn’t meant to put that much in the sauce, and it was just really good! That was my first bechamel mac n cheese. I’m kinda famous in my husband’s family for the eggy mac n cheese that I make. That is a recipe my grandmother used to make with a few tweaks of my own. Thanks for sharing! I’m glad to have made a different kind of mac and cheese and will try warming the milk the next time I make a bechamel sauce. :)

  33. Crazy Good Macaroni and Cheese Recipe says:

    […] The second is custard-based and uses egg yolks to thicken the sauce. For this recipe, we went with the first option (it’s how our Mom’s make it and, in our opinion, a little easier). There are definitely two camps. Here’s a great comparison of the two methods. […]

  34. Charlotte Glassman says:

    Ashley B.,

    Margarine? Have you read the label on margarine? It contains partially hydrogenated oil. This stuff will be illegal soon; it causes cancer. Use real butter and read the butter label before buying. Most of the Monsanto butters also contain partially hydrogenated oil. I buy butter that comes from 100% grass fed cows, (no genetically modified corn). Organic Valley fits the bill.

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