Cozy, wintry home-cooking revolves around a few staples: soups, stews, roasted chickens, and pasta. Food has to stick to your ribs this time of year—doubly so if these delicacies will wind up on the coffee table during the Super Bowl feeding frenzy.
You can file mac and and cheese right up in there with the all-time comfort-food classics. If you grew up in the U.S., you may associate mac forever with Kraft elbows and florescent cheese sauce. That stuff has its charm, there’s no denying it—especially after 2am. But there’s much more to mac than orange powder and macaroni elbows so feeble they soften in the microwave.
Despite a firm association with American cuisine, mac and cheese migrated here from Europe, the very same continent from which pasta, cheese like Parmesan (the original mac melter of choice), and a milky sauce called béchamel also hail. But it was Americans that brought on the over-the-top gooeyness, as well as the proliferation of individual variations each reliant on a home chef’s secret ingredient.
The great thing about macaroni and cheese is that it is, at heart, an exceedingly simple dish. It’s easy to make. It’s easy to make in advance for friends. It’s easy to master. It’s easy to put your own spin on. No microwaves or blue boxes are needed.
It’s worth pointing out that mac doesn’t have to be crazy indulgent if you don’t want it to stick to your ribs for more than a couple hours. Replace some pasta with diced cauliflower, or simply throw in a box of baby spinach. Best of all, serve it alongside a cool salad. If you don’t treat it as a crazy indulgence, you’ll get to eat it all the time. When you decide to put mac on the regular rotation, here are the things you should know.