Impossible to make that G.O.A.T. meal, macaroni and cheese, without a recipe, you say? That’s what we thought, too, until Food52 made us believe that the impossible is truly possible.
Mac and cheese expert Catherine Lamb explains why improvising with the All-American comfort food is a strong move: “The ability to transform such refrigerator and pantry staples into a knock-your-socks-off dish of cheesy baked pasta is nothing to sniff at.” In fact, it’s a pretty valuable skill—and one you can learn by following Lamb’s non-recipe below.
Go crazy with this Food52 macaroni and cheese tutorial, using whatever your pantry has to offer. (Just remember: less pasta = more sauce = goopier macaroni and cheese. More pasta = less sauce = more block-like wedges of mac that you can cut out of the pan and sauté in butter.)
How to Make Macaroni and Cheese (Without a Recipe)
Serves as many as you desire
1. First, make a béchamel sauce. For a whole box of pasta, melt 1/2 cup of butter (1 stick) and whisk in an equal amount of flour to make a roux. Then start whisking in your dairy—I used whole milk, but you could also substitute some of it for heavy cream for a richer sauce. For however much butter you used, add in eight times as much milk or cream. So if you used 1/2 cup of butter, you’ll need four cups of milk or cream. Whisk in your liquid gradually, then stand over the pot, stirring, until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8 to 10 minutes. Once your béchamel is thick, add in some seasonings: Salt and pepper are classics, but I also like to add in a dollop of mustard for pucker, about a teaspoon of paprika for smokiness, a shake of cayenne pepper for spice, and a few grates of nutmeg for a little je ne sais quoi. If you like spice, you could up the heat with more cayenne or a dash of hot sauce. At this point, go ahead and preheat your oven to 375° F.
2. Next, it’s time to add your grated cheese. I went with two parts Gruyère to one part sharp Cheddar, but you should march to the beat of your own drummer. Want something akin to the boxed dinners of your youth? Go with 100% Cheddar. Want something a bit funkier? Add some diced creamy blue cheese or smoked Gouda, or even a little crumbled goat cheese. I recommend steering clear of any non-melty cheese like feta or Parmesan—try sprinkling those over the top of your chef d’oeuvre instead for a crunchy, golden lid.
In terms of quantity, only you can tell when to say when. I went with about 3 cups of cheese for a béchamel made with one stick of butter. The more cheese you add, the denser and gooier your mac and cheese will be. If you add less cheese, the end result will be creamier and looser. Stir the cheese into the hot béchamel until the consistency is relatively smooth and most of the cheese is melted. Don’t forget to reserve a half cup or so of your cheese to sprinkle over the top!
3. Add in hearty greens, cooked meats, roasted vegetables, or shredded crab or lobster meat. I went with chopped spinach, kale, and bacon, because the greens add a level of heft and “health” to the macaroni, and everyone loves bacon. If you don’t partake in meat, try adding some depth with sautéed mushrooms or caramelized onions.
4. While all this is going on, cook your noodles in generously salted water for 2 minutes or so less than the box’s recommendation for al dente. Your pasta will continue cooking in the cheesy, rich sauce and will absorb all the goodness in the oven. When it comes to selecting pasta, choose something with plenty of ridges and nooks and crannies, so it can hug all your sauce and mix-ins. I like cavatelli, since it’s like macaroni—but more.
Fold your cooked pasta into the béchamel mixture. I recommend starting with only 3/4 of the pasta you cooked; less pasta = more sauce = goopier macaroni and cheese. More pasta = less sauce = more block-like wedges of mac that you can cut out of the pan and sauté in butter.
5. Pour the macaroni mixture into a buttered pan. If you live for crispy, caramelized noodles, you could even spread the whole thing out on a sheet pan. Sprinkle your reserved cheese over the top. I like to cover my macaroni and cheese with some chopped, toasted bread for crunch—you could go with anything from large cubes of bread to blitzed, sandy crumbs. I recommend toasting the bread in a bit of butter or oil before sprinkling it atop your macaroni, because we’re already going that direction.
6. Bake your macaroni and cheese for about 30 minutes, or until the top is golden and bubbling with cheesy excitement. Invite over your closest friends, the ones you really, truly love. Or, do as I do, and attack the thing with a fork until sated, wrapping up the remainer in individual portions and freezing until the need for comfort hits.