If the only mac and cheese you’ve had until now is the grocery store box, it’s time to reconsider your options. You can make macaroni and cheese at home, with real ingredients, and upgrade the classic recipe to enjoy different types of dishes.
The mac and cheese of my childhood means macaroni, cheese sauce, eggs, and sugar. Cooked pasta mixed with creamy sauce, one or two eggs, and plenty of white sugar, everything thrown together in a large casserole and then baked in the oven just until it’s golden on top. My brother and I loved it warm or cool, depending on the season.
My mother used to make mac and cheese quite often because it’s a quick and easy to make, but I guess she also did it because me and my brother never said ‘no’ to it. Now, my daughter, who is very picky, eats this dish with great pleasure!
Classic mac and cheese
Macaroni and cheese – called mac and cheese in the USA, Canada, and Australia, and macaroni cheese in the United Kingdom – is a dish of English origin, consisting of cooked macaroni pasta and a cheese sauce, most commonly Cheddar.
Usually, mac and cheese is baked in the oven, in a casserole, but it may be cooked in a saucepan directly on the stove. Or you can simply use a mac and cheese box mix for those moments when you’re in a hurry.
Macaroni is a variety of dried pasta traditionally shaped into narrow tubes, produced in various shapes and sizes. But you can still call the dish mac and cheese when it’s made with a different pasta, like shells, elbows, farfalle, or any short pasta. For homemade mac and cheese, boil pasta until it’s al dente (not entirely cooked through), so it can absorb the cheese sauce too.
If you opt for the mac and cheese box, all you have to do is use your microwave and follow the cooking directions. But things aren’t complicated at all even if you make it yourself at home. Just boil and strain the pasta. Then make a regular cheese sauce. While Cheddar cheese is most commonly used for macaroni and cheese, other cheeses may also be used. You can also combine two or more types of cheese. Popular recipes call for Gruyere, Gouda, Havarti, and Parmesan cheese.
How to improve your mac and cheese
When I was a kid, I didn't like any extra ingredients in my mac and cheese. As a grown up I like a more sophisticated version. You can eat mac and cheese as is, simple and tasty. But you can also add other ingredients, such as extra cheese, extra sauces, breadcrumbs, meat or vegetables, to make it more appealing.
You can upgrade your mac and cheese with a single ingredient you already have in your pantry. Or you can plan ahead. Stir in some vegetables – fresh or frozen – to make a more nourishing meal. You can choose frozen peas, bell peppers, or broccoli, without wasting extra time. The frozen vegetables will defrost and warm up right in the hot pasta and cheesy sauce. You can also throw in fresh or dried tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, asparagus, pumpkin, or add canned sweet corn and then stir them into the mac and cheese mixture just before baking it.
Avocado lends an extra dose of creaminess to your mac and cheese. You can add it directly to bowls when your cheesy pasta is done. Mix gently, grind some black pepper on top, and enjoy the richness of your dish.
2. Herbs and spices
If you want to upgrade your homemade mac and cheese without overloading it with heavy ingredients, one option is flavoring the cheese sauce. To do that, you should infuse the milk for the cheese sauce with herbs and spices, like garlic. Put the milk in a saucepan, then add fresh thyme, sage, rosemary, bay leaves, crushed garlic cloves, black peppercorns, ground mustard powder, Italian seasoning or onion powder to taste. Bring the milk to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until the milk reduces and smells like the herbs and spices you chose. Strain the milk to remove the scraps, then add the cheese and make the sauce as usual.
If you feel the need for more herby touch, top the warm mac and cheese casserole with chopped chives, spring onions, basil, parsley, or sprinkle nutmeg or paprika powder.
When you're looking to add some protein to your bowl of mac and cheese, things like pulled pork, shredded turkey or chicken, or ground beef will do the job well. Still, this kind of meat needs more time to prepare.
For those moments when you don’t have too much time on hand, a great solution is to use deli meats - chorizo, sausages, pancetta, and bacon. Slice the sausages and chorizo before frying them. Pancetta and bacon should be fried, then crumbled over the dish. Regarding your choice, these meats should be used to top your bowls. Why? For the bacon or chorizo to remain crispy.
4. Fish and seafood
If you still want to boost your protein intake, but you don’t eat meat or you just feel like having something different, try fish or seafood. For example, adding oil-packed tuna to your mac and cheese casserole will change its flavor completely. You don’t have to cook the fish together with the cheesy pasta. Just transfer the mac and cheese into bowls, then top them with tuna. Finish with some black pepper.
Mac and cheese also go well with seafood. Try crab, lobster, or shrimp. You can cook the seafood before adding it to pasta or simply buy canned shrimp and crab meat. Mix everything and, before transferring the dish to the oven, sprinkle breadcrumbs on top, to make a golden crispy crust.
5. Other sauces
You can improve your classic mac and cheese by adding some extra cheese. But you can go even further by adding extra sauces. Marinara sauce, with its garlic and tomato flavor, can completely transform your recipe. Salsa has the same power over your pasta. Just add the sauce to the creamy cheese and combine them well before pouring over the macaroni. For a sophisticated taste, add pesto to your dish. All the flavor that's packed into the sauce – garlic, herbs, pine nuts, and parmesan – amplifies the taste and colors your meal with nice touches of green.
For a sweet taste, you can try roasted butternut squash or pumpkin puree.
TIP: Serve the mac and cheese immediately while still warm. Leftovers will keep for up to a week and can be reheated in the microwave. If the sauce is a little dry after reheating, mix in a splash of milk to make it creamy again.