Blank Canvas Mac ‘n Cheese

Classic Mac from Big Girls Small Kitchen

If I were to open a restaurant, I’d make the joint a place that focuses on a single perfect dish and then serves tons of variations on the theme. Grilled cheese a thousand ways, grain bowls in a million iterations, chicken wings tossed with any sauce you can imagine.

This is nothing original. We’ve got specialized restaurants all around New York, and a lot of them aren’t even gimmicky (burrito places, banh mi stores, sushi restaurants). But, it would be fun to sit around menu planning and taste testing for my hypothetical french fry joint (there will be chili fries, cheese fries, poutine, and nacho fries, I can tell you that).

At home, we all get to be the head chefs in our small kitchens, and in our domains, this whole variation-on-a-theme tactic happens naturally. Once you master the flavors and process of one dish, you’re likely to want to make it again, yet without being boring. So while people don’t think me as the queen of baked pasta, if you come for dinner and there are more than four people present, you’ll probably be eating some riff on lasagna or mac ‘n cheese. Sorry in advance.

Not every recipe is as blank a canvas as a baked potato, but mac is. That’s why, today, I’m sharing a recipe for completely classic, absolutely perfect mac ‘n cheese. Yes, you can follow the ingredients and instructions exactly: you will come out with a rich, gooey, orange casserole. But I’m really hoping you take this as a formula. Keep the proportions of pasta, cheese, and sauce, but vary type of cheese and mix-ins, and you can create the mac of your cheffy dreams. Some ideas:

What will you make? I’m off to the kitchen to throw different things in my mac and cheese. Hope you do the same.


Blank Canvas Mac 'n Cheese
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6 to 8
You can make the mac in advance up to the point when you sprinkle on the panko. Then store in the fridge until ready to bake.
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, plus a little more for the pan
  • 1 pound penne rigate
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 quart whole milk, preferably at room temperature (you can warm it in the microwave)
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound sharp orange cheddar cheese, grated (4 cups; use any combo of cheese you'd like, though some of it should be one that melts well)
  • ⅔ cup panko breadcrumbs
  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set it aside.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, following the package directions, until 3 minutes shy of al dente. The pasta should still have a bite to it. Drain, and shake out all the water.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until it is fully incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the milk and whisk gently over medium heat until the mixture has bubbled and thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.
  4. Stir in the salt, pepper, and most of the grated cheese, reserving about ½ a cup. Add the pasta and toss to combine.
  5. Distribute the mixture in the prepared pan. Top with the rest of the cheese mixture, then sprinkle on the panko. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling and brown. Let rest for 5 minutes, then serve.


Posted in: Comfort Kitchen
  • Sylvie Morgan Brown

    Hi there, you mention mustard in the method, but I don’t see the measurement in the ingredients. How much do you tend to use?

    • BGSK

      My bad–thanks for catching, Sylvie! I used to always put about 1 teaspoon of mustard in my mac; these days, it’s not a must so I ended up cutting it from the ingredients. It does do a nice job of breaking up the richness, so give it a try!

  • Burt

    There’s a restaurant in Oakland, CA that does exactly that: does mac & cheese a bunch of different ways as their only menu items. They have even put out a cookbook, but I can’t remember the title.

    • BGSK

      Yum! I’ll seek it out next time I’m in the area.

  • Warm Vanilla Sugar

    This looks so creaaaaaaamy!

  • fancy Simple

    Its a perfect for my diet and i love it. Can’t wait to try this one. God Bless!
    personal chef in austin tx

  • Mandy

    I absolutely love mac and cheese. Yours looks dreamy.

  • Casey

    I made your recipe of mac n cheese with the pesto and prosciutto for my wife. What a total home run meal! I added the addition of 4 ounces sliced mushrooms that I had on hand. I sautéed them in the butter for the roux and they came out beautiful. This is the best mac n cheese I’ve ever made. My wife melted when I brought her a serving. She made the pesto I used and you are correct, homemade is the way to go. Thanks so much, this is definitely a keeper.

    • BGSK

      So glad you enjoyed – definitely trying mushrooms in my mac some time soon!

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