I know. I know. There are too many mac and cheese recipes floating around on the web right now and maybe you believe we don’t really need another. But trust me when I say that this one here is a very good one (and I can’t possibly run a food blog without even one mac and cheese recipe on here). My version here is a baked mac and cheese made with FOUR types of cheese. The amount of cheese I use is more-or-less equal to the amount of macaroni (it is called mac and cheese for a reason, right?), so it’s really cheesy, really gooey, and just really good. That’s not all. This super-cheesy mac and cheese is covered with large, buttery, garlicky breadcrumbs to give you that nice crunch with each creamy bite.
Truly, all variations of mac and cheese, from the boxed mac and cheese, to the proper Southern American classics, to gourmet lobster mac and cheese, are loved by many and can be considered to be the universal comfort food. Who can say no to a huge dish full of cheese and carbs? Not me. But while there is not much that can go wrong with a baked pasta and cheese dish, what are the secrets to a really good mac and cheese?
First of all, when boiling your pasta, you have to make sure you undercook the pasta just a little. Cook the macaroni about 1 minute before being al dente as the macaroni will be cooked a bit more when it goes into the oven. While the ultimate goal is to create a melty pot of gold, there is nothing worse than squishy pasta that can’t hold up against the thick sauce. But who am I kidding, right? For many, the most important element is definitely not the pasta, but the cheese of course.
What cheese to use?
So… what cheese to use? Some people like to use cheap and readily available cheese, since mac and cheese should never be too complicated (and I agree, though, avoid using that pre-grated stuff, since the anti-caking additives can make your mac and cheese gritty). Others prefer to use fancy blocks of cheese acquired from specialized cheese shops as a way to add some elegance to an otherwise rather basic dish. Others simply see mac and cheese as a way to use up all those small pieces of random leftover cheese from last week’s party’s cheeseboard (good tip!!!). Ultimately, the type of cheese you use is all up to you, but there are some guidelines you should follow to achieve that perfect balance between gooey texture and zesty flavor.
It all starts with a full fat milk, some butter and some flour. Then, to achieve that ultra-gooey texture, you should use at least one melting cheese with a high-moisture content, such as a very young Gouda cheese, Fontina, Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Raclette, Brie, or a basic cream cheese. These types of cheese melt at a lower temperature and the high moisture content helps to counteract the tendency of (aged) cheese to become dry and gritty when heated. Since these creamy high-moisture cheeses don’t really add a lot of flavor, you do need to add at least one aged, strong flavored cheese as well, such as a sharp Cheddar, Asiago, Swiss Gruyère, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or even a blue cheese such as Roquefort in order to get that extra cheesy punch. Smoked Gouda, or smoked Scarmorza as a ‘flavor (and slightly melty) cheese’ are good options as well if you want to add some smokiness without adding meat, or fish.
In my recipe below, I’ve used some young Naxian Graviera (Γραβιέρα Νάξου) plus some Mozzarella as my high-moisture, melting cheeses. Graviera is a Greek mild cheese that’s usually made with sheep’s, or goat’s milk, but the Naxian Graviera is made with cow’s milk, which is why it can easily be substituted by a young, or semi-matured Gouda in this recipe if you can’t find any. For that cheesy flavor, I’ve added some sharp English Cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Because this is a four-cheese mac and cheese, I wanted a nice balance between all the different types of cheese and tried to avoid using very strong flavored cheeses (such as blue cheese) that might overpower all of the other cheeses. I chose to use fresh mozzarella, which honestly does not give too much flavor to the dish at all, but it does melt into those lovely, fun stringy cheese strands for all your cheese pull pleasure (and it adds the moisture!).
To conclude this mac and cheese essay (TLDR version), a really good mac and cheese consists of several elements that come together to form a perfectly balanced dish: there’s a chewy element (al dente pasta), a creamy element (melting, high-moisture cheese), a zesty element (an aged, full-flavored cheese), and a crunchy element (crunchy topping: in this case, large, buttery and garlicky breadcrumbs). How you decide to fill in those different elements is all up to you, but if you don’t feel like making any choices, I’ve made them for you in the recipe below!
Tip #1: If you would like to avoid a ‘stringy’ mac and cheese, replace the fresh mozzarella my recipe calls for with an equal amount of cream cheese, or other young fresh cheese instead.
Note: my recipe calls for a deep iron cast skillet, but if you don’t own one, simply prepare the sauce in a large saucepan, or pot and transfer the cheese sauce and macaroni mixture to a ceramic baking dish before baking it in the oven.
Four-Cheese Mac and Cheese
- For the garlic breadcrumb topping:
- 120g stale bread, torn into relatively large crumbs
- 50g butter
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- Pinch of salt
- For the mac and cheese:
- 500g elbow macaroni
- 1 small yellow onion, finely diced
- 50g butter
- 40g flour
- 1l whole milk
- 200g sharp English cheddar
- 100g Parmigiano Reggiano
- 150g Graviera Naxou, or young Gouda
- 150g Mozzarella ball
- ½ tablespoon sharp English mustard
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
MethodServes about 4 - 5 people as a main, or about 8 as a side dish to complement other dishes.
- General Prep: Preheat the oven to 180°C. Finely dice the onion and grate all of your cheeses. Set aside. For the breadcrumb topping: coarsely shred/crumb the bread and finely mince the two garlic cloves.
- Prepare the breadcrumb topping. Place a frying pan over medium-high heat and melt 50g of butter. Add the 2 minced cloves of garlic and let the garlic infuse the butter for 1 minute. Add the breadcrumbs to the garlic butter and sprinkle on a pinch of salt. Stir to coat and let the crumbs soak up all the butter for some seconds (the crumbs don’t need to get toasted at this point yet). Set aside until later use.
- Pre-cook your pasta. Bring a large pot filled with water to a boil. Boil the macaroni about 1 minute shorter than the time instructed on the package for al dente (to avoid ending up with overcooked pasta since it will continue to cook a little in the oven later). Drain and set aside.
- Make the base for the cheese sauce. Melt 50g of butter in a large, high-rimmed iron cast skillet on medium-high heat (If you don’t have an iron cast skillet. Prepare the sauce in a large pot). When the butter has melted, add the finely diced onion. Sauté until it turns translucent and slightly brown. Add the flour to the butter and onions and stir to combine. Cook the mixture for a few minutes while stirring continuously to avoid burning until it starts to turn light brown. Next, turn the heat down to medium-low and add the milk to the pan. Continue stirring until the mixture starts to thicken slightly, almost like a thin béchamel. Keep in mind that the sauce doesn’t have to be too thick yet, as the cheese will thicken the sauce substantially.
- Adding your cheeses, flavorings, and cooked pasta. When the ‘thin béchamel’ has thickened slightly, remove from the heat before adding the grated cheeses. Stir in the cheese a handful at a time until most of it is melted (it’s okay if some of it doesn’t melt yet). Add 1 tablespoon of English mustard and some freshly ground black pepper to taste. Stir the cooked macaroni into the cheese sauce. (If you didn’t use an iron cast skillet, transfer the macaroni and cheese sauce to a ceramic oven dish). Finally, divide the buttery breadcrumb mixture over the top of your macaroni and cheese.
- Place the iron cast skillet, or oven dish in the middle of the preheated oven for 15 - 20 minutes until the breadcrumbs have browned and crisped up. Serve nice and hot from the oven.