In each chapter of Kelsey Nixon's new cookbook, Kitchen Confidence, there is an "essential" recipe. These essentials are usually very simple recipes and are intended as a blank canvas for further learning and experimentation. Nixon's stovetop macaroni and cheese is one such recipe. As such, there's not too much here that would sound unfamiliar to anyone who's made homemade mac and cheese. Nixon builds her sauce by starting with a béchamel, enriching it with a pound of cheese. Her choice in cheese—a 50/50 blend of cheddar and Muenster—is on the mild side, but it melts smoothly and would pair well with any of her three variations. A final sprinkle of Parmesan and parsley both seasons and brightens the blend, making for a solid (and quick) dinner.
Why I picked this recipe: I'm not going to beat around the bush—I had a craving for mac and cheese this week, so I couldn't stay away.
What worked: Simple, straightforward, and tasty, this take on basic macaroni and cheese was deeply satisfying.
What didn't: No problems at all.
Suggested tweaks: If you're looking to up your mac and cheese game, try one of the three variations in the recipe. If you're keeping the dish plain, you can also try swapping out one of the cheeses for a stronger-flavored choice, like Gruyère.
Reprinted with permission from Kitchen Confidence: Essential Recipes and Tips That Will Help You Cook Anything by Kelsey Nixon. Copyright 2014. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk, scalded
- Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
- 1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
- 1/2 pound Muenster cheese, shredded (2 cups)
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain and set aside.
In a heavy saucepan or extra-large skillet set over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, about 2 minutes (make sure it doesn’t brown). Add 3 cups of the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring, for 2 more minutes. Stir in the dry mustard and cayenne, then gradually add the cheddar and Muenster cheeses, stirring constantly until all of the cheese has melted into the sauce. Stir in the remaining 1 cup milk. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and stir to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle the top with the Parmesan cheese and parsley. Serve immediately.
Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese: Stir 2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken mixed with a few dashes of hot sauce into the cheese sauce just before adding the pasta. Substitute crumbled blue cheese for the Parmesan cheese.
French Onion Soup Mac and Cheese: Substitute 1/2 pound shredded Gruyère cheese for the Muenster. In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1/4 cup butter, then add 1 thinly sliced yellow onion. Cook until caramelized, about 10 minutes. Fold into the mixture with the cooked pasta.
Lobster Mac and Cheese: Fold in 1 1/2 pounds cooked lobster meat to the finished macaroni and cheese, reserving a few pieces of lobster to garnish the top, if desired.