Every once in a while I revisit Macaroni & Cheese. See. I’m always being seduced by gorgeous photos, and ultimately get disappointed. It seems every recipe I’ve ever tried had something going on with it that just wasn’t quite what fits my version of a perfect Mac & Cheese. Finally, after making so many over the years, and looking at so many recipes, I set about to make my own Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese with Herbed Bread Crumbs.
So I know that’s kind of smackdown talk, to claim this is the Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese! You’ll just have to give it a try and see what you think. You might notice as you read the recipe that this is really an Old School Mac n Cheese. So the funny thing is, on my quest for the Ultimate Macaroni and Cheese, I left the basic old school recipes behind me. And over the years, having tried many variations and many “Cheffy” touches, I came around full circle and am right where I started! I’ve come “home” to the Mac & Cheese of my childhood. (Only better!!)
About Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese with Herbed Bread Crumbs:
So what does make a Mac n Cheese fantastic? In my mind, first of all, the macaroni has to be just perfectly done when the dish is finished; they still need to be distinct, not a solid mass. It will hold together only minimally and the sauce, well, it should still be saucy. And that sauce should be smooth, creamy and luscious. It should be a sauce so gorgeous, you’ll literally want to lick your plate. And while some people rely on processed cheese for that smoothness, I didn’t want to – simply because I wanted all the real cheese flavor I could pack into this casserole.
So that brings us to the taste. I know a lot of recipes use different cheese other than Cheddar, but my ultimate Mac & Cheese has Cheddar. And lots of it. Because if Parmesan is the King of Italian cheese, Cheddar has to be the King of cheese in the States. The thing is, though, for the best meltability, the Cheddar can’t be too sharp, too dry. So it’s kind of counterintuitive that the “Best” cheddar doesn’t necessarily make the Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese. The sharper the cheese, the drier the taste. I’ve even had some Macaroni and Cheese that was actually difficult to get down, not so with this creamy dreamy Ultimate Mac & Cheese. That being said, you don’t want the cheapest cheese, either.
And while my Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese is a nod to Mac & Cheese from generations past, that doesn’t mean it’s dull or plain. There are a couple of little ingredients that always boost the flavor of the Cheddar and creamy sauces, and that’s why you’ll see them so often in classic cheese recipes like the British Cheese Rarebit. Hey, if they don’t know Cheddar in Great Britain, where do they know it! And then there’s the herbed topping. That crispy, crunchy topping should contrast with the texture of the macaroni and contrast with the taste. Just a little something to enhance the whole dish.
Making Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese with Herbed Bread Crumbs:
There are a couple of tricks to making a great Mac & Cheese:
- Cook the noodles just right; if not they’ll either be mushy or soak up too much liquid, leaving the mac & cheese dry. You’ll want them with just a bit of resistance.
- Use great ingredients. But not too great. The cheese has to have a lot of flavor but not be so sharp it loses that great meltability.
- Don’t use pre-shredded cheese. It has anti-clumping agents.
- Make your own bread crumbs for the topping. Don’t even think about canned or boxed. And especially don’t use Panko. There’s something about panko that’s dull and lifeless and it will never give you the gorgeous color and just-right texture of a homemade breadcrumb.
It’s very important, after making the White Sauce (the mixture of butter, flour, and milk) to remove it from the heat and add the cheese in small handfuls. It’s a lot, but be patient and let each clump of cheese melt into the sauce before going on to the next. That’s going to ensure your sauce doesn’t break or turn grainy. You don’t want to take all day about it, either, just briskly add it and whisk it in.
Saving Money on Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese with Herbed Bread Crumbs:
I don’t often eat Macaroni & Cheese. For one, it can be pretty pricey, if you want it super creamy and oozing with cheesy flavor. And while Macaroni & Cheese was a depression-era meal and is lauded as a “soul food” even today, Macaroni & Cheese is no longer a “cheap” or a budget meal. At least a good one isn’t. I think this ran about $8.00 with all ingredients on sale and would be about twice that if you weren’t shopping carefully.
Of course, it is hearty and filling and comforting but the price dictates that this is more of a special occasion dish at my house. That’s probably a good thing considering the number of calories…so I’ll sneak this one in before we all wake up after New Year’s, hit the scale and start whizzing up green smoothies in the blender. If you’d like a healthier version of Mac & Cheese, check out this Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese.
Do shop well for the cheese and watch the sales. I picked up Cracker Barrel on sale, 2 bucks each, plus a discount for a coupon, and thought it was perfect in balance of taste and meltability in this. And I picked it up for less than plain old grocery store cheese, so do watch the specials and let them guide you on what to make. I used a combo of their white Cheddar and some of their sharp Cheddar and the Cracker Barrel melted just right into the perfect cheesy gooeyness w/o the graininess of a better cheese or the oiliness of a cheaper one.Print
Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese with Herbed Bread Crumbs
This Macaroni & Cheese is full of Cheddar, creamy & luscious! Note that the # of servings count when served as a side, not a main dish.
- Total Time: 40 minutes
- Yield: 15 servings 1x
- Category: Casserole
- Cuisine: American
Macaroni & Cheese:
- 1 package (16 ounces) elbow macaroni
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 6 tablespoons flour
- 2 tablespoons ground mustard powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper (1 teaspoon regular table pepper)
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- pinch of nutmeg
- 4 1/2 cups milk
- 5 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (20 ounces total – try a combo of white and sharp Cheddar)
- Bread crumb topping, below
Bread Crumb Topping:
- 1 1/2 cups lightly toasted or dry bread crumbs, preferably home-made, from about 3 to 4 slices of bread, trimmed of crust
- 3 – 4 tablespoons melted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder or garlic salt
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- a little chopped fresh parsley, about a tablespoon, optional
Macaroni & Cheese:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Cook macaroni in large saucepan or Dutch oven as directed on package for al dente pasta. The macaroni should be cooked through, the edges should be soft but there should be a little resistance when you bite one. Rinse under cold water; drain well, shaking, and set aside.
Melt butter in the same saucepan on medium heat. In a small bowl, mix together the flour, mustard powder, pepper, the one teaspoon garlic powder, salt, and nutmeg. Sprinkle over the butter and cook, stirring constantly, for about two minutes until well blended and the flour mixture appears to be a bit drier.
Gradually add milk, stirring constantly. Continue to stir or whisk for about three minutes, or until sauce thickens. Check by running your finger across the back of the spoon. A distinct line that doesn’t fill in should be left behind.
Remove from heat and add grated cheddar in small handfuls, stirring slowly after each addition. Continue to stir until the cheese is all melted.
Add macaroni; toss gently to coat. Pour into greased 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Bake 15 minutes, remove from the oven and sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Return to the oven and bake for an additional five to 10 minutes, until hot and bubbly and golden brown on top. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Bread Crumb Topping:
To make toasted bread crumbs, fill food processor about half full with bread in about 1″ cubes (without the crust) and pulse until crumbs are formed that are uniform in size.
Remove from food processor, lay out on a sheet pan(s) about 1/4 inch deep and bake for about 14 – 20 minutes at 250 degrees F. Stir once or twice. Watch carefully, timing can vary. Remove when barely golden brown.
If you don’t have a food processor, bread crumbs can be made on the large holes of a grater.
Mix the toasted bread crumbs with the butter and herbs.