Our favorite mac and cheese recipe calls on a few smart steps to make sure the macaroni and cheese is ultra creamy and flavorful. While many cheeses can work in this recipe, the two cheeses we go back to again and again are sharp white cheddar and Pecorino-Romano cheese. The cheddar melts down to be creamy and the pecorino adds a sharp salty bite to the sauce. For the creamiest sauce, we hand grate the cheese since previously shredded cheeses don’t seem to melt as well.
1 pound dried pasta like elbow macaroni, shells or penne
Salt, to taste
5 cups (1180 ml) milk, whole or 2% are best
5 tablespoons (70 grams) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons (45 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 pound sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded (4 heaping cups), plus more if baking (about 1/2 cup)
5 ounces (140 grams) Pecorino-Romano cheese, shredded (1 1/2 cups)
For baked macaroni and cheese, heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 3-quart casserole dish or spray with non-stick cooking spray. For stove-top mac and cheese, move on to the next step.
Grate the cheeses and set aside. For baked mac and cheese, reserve 1/2 cup for topping the pasta before baking in the oven.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add the pasta then follow package directions, but cook 2 minute less than the recommended cook time. Drain then rinse pasta with cold water and set aside.
Add milk to a large microwave-safe measuring jug and microwave 1 to 3 minutes until warm. Alternatively, you can add milk to a large saucepan over medium heat then heat milk until warm.
While the milk warms up, melt the butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. When the butter begins to bubble, add the flour. Cook, constantly whisking until the butter smells fragrant and nutty — the color of the butter-flour mixture will be light brown; 2 to 3 minutes.
While whisking, slowly pour the warm milk into butter and flour mixture. Continue to cook, constantly whisking until the sauce bubbles and thickens. Remove the pan from the heat. and then stir in mustard, black pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, 4 cups of cheddar and all of the Romano cheese. Stir until the heat from the sauce melts the cheese.
Taste the sauce for seasoning, and then adjust with additional spices or salt (we usually start with 1/2 teaspoon of fine salt and go from there).
If the drained and rinsed pasta will fit into the pan, add it to the cheese sauce. If the pasta will not fit, add both the pasta and sauce to a separate large bowl and stir well.
For a stovetop mac and cheese, cover with a lid and set aside for 5 minutes. In this time the pasta will absorb some of the extra cheese sauce. Serve.
For a baked mac and cheese, pour the pasta into the prepared baking dish. Top with the reserved 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese.
Bake, uncovered, until bubbling, about 30 minutes. For browned cheese on top, turn the oven to broil, and then broil 3 to 5 minutes until the top has blistered and lightly browned. Let stand about 10 minutes before serving.