Feed a family of 8 or have a leftover classic that tastes even better than the day you made it. The directions here are longer than normal but will ensure you’re a cream sauce expert by the end.
1 lb (16 oz) pasta of your choice (elbow macaroni, cavatappi, etc)
4 tbsp butter
2 tsp salt
1 – 2 cups milk
1/4 cup cream
16 oz sharp cheddar cheese (block, not shredded)
16 oz monterey jack cheese (block, not shredded)
Pepper to taste
16 oz additional sharp cheddar cheese (block, not shredded)
1 tsp ground mustard
1 tbsp olive oil
8 oz sliced mushrooms
Sprinkle of salt
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 can creamed corn
- Remove 1 – 2 cups milk from fridge and let sit at room temperature while you are cooking.
- Cook pasta per box directions to al dente and drain. Add 2 tbsp butter, 1 tsp salt, stir and set aside.
- While pasta is cooking, shred the 2 to 3 blocks of cheese and set aside.
- Heat remaining 2 tbsp butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Once bubbling, reduce heat to medium low.
- Whisk in 1/4 cup of cream until smooth. Reduce heat further to low.
- Add 1/4 of the shredded cheese and continue to whisk until smooth. The cheese might aggregate slightly at the bottom of the pan, but the whisk should be relatively cheese-free when you remove it. If the cheese is not melting into the sauce, slightly increase the heat, but do not increase over medium heat.
- Add in 1 cup of milk and continue to stir. Periodically add the remainder of the cheese and continue to stir. You may be stirring for 10 – 15 minutes on and off as you add the cheese and heat on medium low until the sauce is smooth. Over heat, the sauce should remain thin as it will thicken upon cooling. If it is too thick, add the remaining cup of milk.
- Once all the desired cheese and milk has been added, add the remaining 1 tsp salt, pepper, and optional mustard. Remove the sauce from heat and continue to stir for 1 – 2 minutes as the sauce cools. No large clumps of cheese should be sticking to the whisk.
- Use a spoon to taste the cheese sauce. The consistency should be heavenly, otherwise, keep mixing on heat. If it needs salt, add more at 1/2 tsp at a time, stirring and tasting in between.
- Add sauce to pasta and stir. Add creamed corn directly from can and stir in, if desired. Let sit for 5 minutes once mixed.
- If desired, chop mushrooms further into 1/2 inch cubes. Heat olive oil in a small pan over medium heat, then add mushrooms and minced garlic. Sauté for 5 minutes, then sprinkle salt on top.
- Serve mac and cheese with optional mushrooms on top and enjoy!
The good stuff
Making a cream sauce that lasts
Mac and cheese is a childhood classic. If made successfully, it brings back fond memories of an easier time. If made unsuccessfully, it makes you feel like you’ve failed at being an adult.
Fresh mac and cheese is full of oils and fats that please the tongue, but these can also cause it to dry out overnight in the fridge. The cream sauce listed here ensures that your mac and cheese stays fresh and wonderful just like the day you made it by cutting the fat in the cheese with cream and milk (which is already a oil-in-water emulsion) to maintain moisture. Shredding cheese from the block ensures it will melt easily as pre-shredded cheese can have additives that prevent this.
If this is your first time making a cream-based sauce, you’re in for a forearm exercise. The key to this sauce is constantly stirring and evaluating the texture. The sauce will thicken once cooled, so it’s better to lean on having more milk / liquid at first than less so that the cheese has an easier time melting into the emulsion. Everyone has their own preferences for cheesiness, so the recipe above is intentionally flexible about the amount of milk and cheese you wish to pad your pasta with.
If you have a gas stove, you’ll have no problem adjusting the temperature on the fly to get it hotter to melt the cheese better or cooler when you are ready to thicken. If you’re on an electric stove, you may want to leave one burner on low heat and another on medium so you can transfer the pan between them when you need to change temperatures.
Upgrading the flavor of your meal
While the barebones classic is great, your palette may have evolved slightly in the last few years (or decades?). The garlic mushrooms will add another layer of flavor on top of the classic, while the ground mustard adds a tangy note. For me, though, the most critical flavor component is the creamed corn.
If you’ve never had corn in mac and cheese, you’re in for a treat. I must admit, I never experienced this until seeing it served multiple times at family meals in Iowa. Corn is after all a staple of the scenery.
The creamed corn adds just enough sweetness while maintaining the creamy texture of the mac and cheese. Layered with tangy ground mustard and the sharp savoriness of garlic, you’ll never think about mac and cheese without corn again.