The Pantry: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

My son’s favorite dish is Baked Macaroni and Cheese.  He loves it so much that he informed me that he would rather eat it than birthday cake this year.  “You can put a candle in it, mom.”  While I don’t think I’ll be putting a candle in the macaroni and cheese, I don’t mind indulging my family once and a while. [EDIT: He did get Macaroni and Cheese with a candle as part of his birthday dinner.  I’m such a sucker.]

I got my recipe years ago—before Boy was even born, so more than eight years now—off of a box of Mueller’s Macaroni.  It uses cornstarch as a thickener, and I can hear you foodies gasping from here to eternity, “Cornstarch is for fruit pies. You must use flour!”  Even Mueller’s new recipe on the back of the box reflects this bit of food snobbery.  Well, I’ve tried the flour version, and I’ve discovered I like the cornstarch version better.  Since it’s what I do and it hasn’t failed me yet, it’s what I’m giving you.

Now this isn’t the exact Mueller’s recipe.  Like everything, I’ve tweaked here and there, but not that much.  The instructions are mine, too.  If it seems like they’re bare-bones basic—yeah, I tell you how to boil macaroni noodles—it’s only because I’m telling you exactly how I do it.  Hey, I once had a brilliant friend in college who had never flipped a hamburger before.  I take no chances.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Based on Mueller’s recipe

Ingredients

3-4 cups water

8 oz. macaroni, uncooked

2 ½ cups milk

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste*

½ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

¼ teaspoon dry mustard (optional)

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded and divided**

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease an 8×8 baking dish.
  2. In a large saucepan, bring 3-4 cups of water to a boil over high heat.  Add macaroni—you can salt the water if you like; I don’t.  Cook macaroni for 8-9 minutes.  It will still be firm.  Remove from heat, and drain carefully in a colander.  Set aside.
  3. While the noodles are cooking, in a small bowl or a large measuring cup, mix the milk, cornstarch, salt, pepper, and mustard (if you want it—I use it only if the hubby isn’t home—he doesn’t do mustard).  Stir with a fork to dissolve the cornstarch and mix the spices thoroughly.  Then pour mixture into the large heavy duty saucepan.  Add butter, and cook on medium, whisking constantly until mixture comes to a boil.  I can’t stress the “heavy duty saucepan” and the “whisking constantly” parts enough.  Nothing is less fun than lumpy sauce that has partially burned to the bottom of a thin pot.
  4. Allow the sauce to boil approximately 1 minute—it should be thick.  If it isn’t, let it boil a little longer, but be careful—with the cornstarch, it’ll get grainy tasting if you let it go too crazy.  Remove it from heat and whisk in 1 cup of the shredded cheese until cheese is melted.
  5. Pour cooked macaroni into the sauce and give it a stir.  (Sometimes I make this a main dish by adding about ¾ cup of diced cooked ham at this point.)  Then pour the macaroni and sauce into the greased baking dish, and sprinkle the remaining 1 cup of cheddar over the top.
  6. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until top is bubbly and beginning to brown a little.  Don’t go too long, though, or the cheese will turn into a brick.
  7. Remove from oven and allow pasta to set for 15 minutes or so.  If you dig right in, you’ll have a soupy mess.  It’ll taste good, but it’ll ooze everywhere, so be patient.

Yields approximately 6-8 servings (or 4 giant ones, depending on how much your family likes macaroni and cheese)

*I don’t like a lot of salt, so if you find that this is too little, add more.

**A word about the cheese—I use a combination of medium and sharp cheddar.  I say to go with what you like.  I think this’d be fantastic with some sharp white cheddar, and I’ve always wanted to try it with Gruyere.  I did try mild cheddar once, and I have to say it really wasn’t strong enough for the dish.

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