Sometimes nothing hits the spot like a big dish of creamy baked macaroni and cheese with a topping of buttery crisp breadcrumbs. My family loves it when they see me pull a big pan of this out of the oven. It’s also a simple vegetarian dinner that’s perfect for cutting down your grocery budget. With meat being so expensive you need a few reliable meatless meals you can make. I promise no one will miss the meat with this on the menu!
I adapted this recipe from Ina Garten’s Mac and Cheese recipe which is amazing but didn’t quite suit our needs. My family doesn’t prefer the tomatoes on top. I don’t make the white sauce with butter to save money, time, and unecessary fat. In my recipe I only use cheddar, fancy cheese is expensive and not easy to find. Finally to make enough for my big family I increase the pasta and add broccoli or cauliflower.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese Recipe
- 1 1/2 to 2 pounds elbow macaroni
- 2 crowns of broccoli or 1 head of cauliflower, cut into small florets (optional)
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 16 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
- 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted, or mild olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the Pasta
Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package. When 5 minutes is left on your timer, add the broccoli or cauliflower if you’re using it. Drain the pasta when it’s done. Tip the pasta into a buttered 9 by 13 inch baking dish and set it aside. I use a lasagna pan that’s basically the same size but not exactly. You want to use a dish about that size.
The White Sauce
In a large saucepan whisk together the flour and milk. Whisk continuously over medium heat, make sure to get in the corners of the pan so the flour doesn’t clump up. Clumpy sauce is not a thing to be desired. However, if you do get some lumps just remove the pan from the heat and beat vigorously until the sauce smooths out. If you have an immersion blender you can blitz the sauce to remove lumps.
While the sauce is coming to a simmer and starting to thicken, add the dried mustard and paprika. Give it a taste and season with salt and pepper. You need to keep in mind that the cheese will add some salt but I find this needs a good amount of salt and pepper. Have courage and season it up! I add and taste, add and taste, until it’s just right.
When the sauce comes to a simmer, turn the heat to low and cook for 4 or 5 minutes. You have to keep stirring, it will scorch easily when it’s thick. You know a white sauce is done when it coats the back of a spoon. Below you can see my spoon test of the sauce.
Traditional white sauces are made with a roux of butter or some kind of fat and flour which you add liquid to. You use broth to make gravy for meat and milk to make white sauce or sausage gravy. Of course you will love gravy and sauce made with a butter roux but it’s not totally necessary. Mixing flour and whatever liquid you’re using works well and saves money and fat. It’s also simpler to make and I like the lighter dishes made this way.
Finishing the Sauce
Now it’s time to add the shredded cheese. I always grate cheese from a block instead of using pre-shredded cheese. It melts more smoothly and tastes better. My favorite cheese to use is extra-sharp cheddar but feel free to use what you prefer or have on hand. When you use a sharp or extra-sharp cheese you need less of it to get the good flavor you want. This is a simple way to save on your food budget since you can use a smaller amount in your recipes.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the cheese. You don’t want to boil a sauce after you add cheese. I give it a quick stir and then let it sit to melt. After a few minutes stir again and taste one more time for seasoning. Pour the sauce over the pasta and vegetables in the baking dish and mix well.
I use breadcrumbs made from leftover stale bread that I’ve baked. Here’s my post about making your own breadcrumbs. It’s a great way to repurpose bread that would otherwise be thrown out. I make almost all our bread, usually sourdough, so there’s no way I’m tossing it if I can help it!
Drizzle melted butter or oil over the breadcrumbs and stir to coat. I prefer melted butter always but sometimes I don’t have time to melt it so I use oil. I acknowledge that melting butter isn’t exactly a time consuming activity but we don’t have a microwave. Some days melting butter on the stove and then washing the pan seems a bridge too far.
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the luscious macaroni and cheese sauce and spread it evenly over the top. Put the dish in a 375 degree oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until it’s golden brown and bubbling.
Let the macaroni and cheese sit and cool for a few minutes if you can. I like to serve it with a green salad. Unfortunately leftovers don’t heat up quite as well as you would hope but there’s not usually much leftover around here anyway.