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:
- Pesto, Peas, Proscuitto & Mozz
- Spinach & Blue Cheese
- Butternut Squash with Cheddar & Sage
- Bacon & Aged Gouda
- Broccoli & Parmesan
- Pickled Jalapeño, Black Bean & Monterey Jack
- Basil, Tomato & Smoked Mozzarella
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 Cheddar Mac ‘n Cheese
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
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 quart whole milk, preferably at room temperature (you can warm it in the microwave)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 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)
2/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set it aside.
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.
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.
Stir in the salt, pepper, and most of the grated cheese, reserving about 1/2 a cup. Add the pasta and toss to combine.
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.