This classic mac and cheese recipe is a culmination of my childhood experiences with Kraft and my adult travels through the American South.
Moving to the US when I was six, I never felt 100% American. My parents made us speak Farsi at home and we ate Iranian dishes while TV families had mac and cheese with meatloaf.
Since childhood, I craved acceptance by my American peers and yearned to feel at home in this country. Food was the link that helped me honor my Iranian heritage while embracing my American citizenship. When I started cooking at 9 years old I made all the American dishes I could approach. Chocolate stovetop pudding, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and boxed mac and cheese were staples in my recipe repertoire.
Even as a kid I liked to jazz up the Kraft box of mac with generous pats of butter and the addition of any shredded cheese we had at home. Decades passed and my mac and cheese experiences extended beyond childhood packages. I’ve now enjoyed all varieties of mac and cheese, including lobster studded from a steakhouse, pimento jeweled in Nashville, and everything in between.
Some variations I like more than others but I always love the classic, cheesy, simple mac that reminds me of childhood.
To perfect this classic mac and cheese recipe, I kept the cheese simple and focused on good execution. Some tips that will help you with your own mac and cheese journey are:
- season the pasta well: tasting the pasta water before adding noodles will elevate any pasta dish you make – it should taste like the sea
- don’t overcook the pasta: set a timer for 1 minute less than the lowest recommended time on the package of pasta you’re using
- don’t use preshredded cheese: preshredded cheese is treated with starch to prevent caking, this will hinder your silky smooth cheese sauce
- use one melty cheese and one sharp cheese: for a classic mac, there’s no need to use anything too fancy (mozzarella will give you great stretch and sharp cheddar will add that classic color and cheesy flavor)
With this simple recipe and attention to each step, you’ll be serving classic mac and cheese to your family in no time!
This is a classic, smooth American mac and cheese without the crunchy gratin topping. You can top the finished mac and cheese with a mixture of 1 cup bread crumbs, 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, and 1/4 cup melted butter and bake for 15 minutes at 375 degrees if desired.
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- kosher salt*
- 1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese (not pre-shredded)
- 1/2 pound whole milk mozzarella
- 7 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon for the pasta
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 5 cups whole milk, cold
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tablespoon dijon mustard
- Pour 10 cups of water into a large pot that has a lid.
- Add 4 tablespoons kosher salt to the water, cover the pot with its lid, and bring to a boil over high heat. (shred the cheeses while you wait for the pasta to boil)
- Add the elbow macaroni to the boiling water, stir, and bring back to a boil over high heat.
- As soon as the pasta comes back up to a boil, set a timer for 1 minute less than the lowest recommended time for the pasta.
- Drain the noodles in a colander placed in the sink, toss with 1 tablespoon of butter to prevent from sticking and leave alone while you make the sauce.
- Shred the cheddar and mozzarella using the large holes of a box grater, set aside.
- Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat.
- Make a roux by adding the flour to the butter and cooking, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the roux is bubbling and semi solid/semi liquid, 3-4 minutes. You want to cook the flour a bit but not add any color by overcooking.
- To test the roux, rub a small amount in between your thumb and index finger (be careful, it’ll be hot). The roux should feel sandy, not velvety smooth.
- Switch to a whisk, and add a little bit of the milk to the roux at a time, stirring well in between each addition.
- Continue to add the milk and whisk until smooth.
- Let the milk come to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce thickens, 5-6 minutes.
- Add 2 teaspoons kosher salt, the cayenne pepper, nutmeg, and dijon mustard to the sauce.
- Add the shredded cheese to the milk sauce (bechamel) in small batches, stirring with a wooden spoon in between each addition to melt the cheese. Remove from heat.
- Taste the sauce for seasoning. Add up to 2 teaspoons more kosher salt to the cheese sauce if necessary.
- Toss the cooked macaroni with the cheese sauce and serve immediately.
*if you use a non-flaky salt like table salt (anything other than sea salt or Kosher salt), use only 1/2 the amount of salt prescribed in each step and taste to see if you should add more