Macaroni and cheese has always been one of my very favorite foods. I prefer the baked variety with a nice crust on top instead of the creamy skillet type. Don’t get me wrong – it’s good, too! I’ve just always preferred that crunchy, browned topping. As a lifelong macaroni and cheese devotee, I was horrified with Papi Chulo told me he didn’t like it. How could you not like the most amazing food ever?! Well, it turns out that’s because he’s really only ever had Navy mac & cheese, which I’m sure resembles real, homemade macaroni and cheese goodness just about as much as Spam resembles a steak. Yuck. This dish is for him, to prove that macaroni and cheese is real food, and that it’s worth having.
So why is this called “grown-up” macaroni and cheese? Because it’s slightly spicy, deeply flavorful, and far from a bland, kids’ table creation. It has a few unique ingredients, some zing, and a special topping you’ve probably never tried before. Read on to discover more!
This recipe is for an 8×8 or 9×9 baking dish, but it’s easy to double for a larger batch. Just literally double all the given ingredients. I’m more than happy to eat leftover mac & cheese for days (I even eat it cold!), but I feel bad about feeing Papi Chulo the same thing for a week and decided to go with a half batch for this recipe.
When selecting cheese for macaroni and cheese, you should always buy a whole block, not pre-shreded cheese. I know it’s a bit of a bother to shred yourself, but the pre-shreded stuff contains anti-caking agents that make it melt oddly. Plus, the shreded cheese usually has way more fillers and far less flavor than block cheese. This half recipe needs half a block each of two different cheeses. For a full batch of mac and cheese, just use a full 8 ounce block of each cheese. Shredding it is way less painful if you treat your box grater with a quick coating of cooking spray – this prevents the cheese from gumming up the grater!
- ½ a pound (half a box) of penne noodles
- 3.5 tablespoons tablespoons of butter, for the sauce
- 3 tablespoons of flour
- 1 teaspoon of mustard powder
- ⅛ teaspoon of cayenne pepper
- 4 oz (1 cup) monterey or pepper jack cheese
- 4 oz (1 cup) sharp cheddar cheese
- 2.5 cups of milk
- ½ an onion, chopped small
- 1 tablespoon of olive
- 1 roll of Ritz crackers, broken into small pieces.
- 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, for the Ritz topping
- Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Prepare the noodles according to the box's instructions, but stopping just shy of al dente. Use a large pot or a Dutch oven.
- While the pasta is cooking, sauté the onion. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. When the oil is warm and shimmering, add the onions and sauté, turning down the heat as necessary to prevent the onions from browning, until the onions become slightly translucent. Remove the onions from the heat and set aside for later.
- Once the noodles are ready, drain them in a colander and toss them lightly with olive oil or butter. I absolutely love my RSVP colander that was a Christmas gift from my dad and don't know how I drained anything without it!
- Do not rinse the pot used to cook the noodles. Instead, return it to the heated burner and reduce the burner's heat to medium/medium-high.
- Melt butter in your heated pot and heat until it foams.
- Once the butter is melted and foaming, whisk in the flour, mustard powder, and cayenne. Allow the mixture to cook until it deepens in color and becomes fragrant - about 1 minute.
- Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Yes, whisking makes it take longer to boil, but it is both necessary to whisk and to bring the mixture to a full boil. If you do not, it won't set up properly.
- After the mixture boils, reduce the heat to medium and simmer, whisking occasionally, until it has thickened and resembles heavy cream. This should take about 5 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the heat and reduce the burner to medium-low.
- Off the heat, whisk in the cheeses.
- Once the cheeses are fully melted, mix in the onion and the drained, cooked pasta.
- Return to the pot to the heat and cook until everything is warmed and starting to steam, about 5 minutes.
- Transfer the hot macaroni and cheese to your square baking pan.
- Either after the mac and cheese is ready or while it is reheating, heat the reaming 3 tablespoons of butter over medium/medium-high heat in a skillet until it is melted and foaming. Add the Ritz pieces and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are golden brown.
- Scatter the Ritz topping across the dish of macaroni and cheese.
- Place the mac and cheese in the oven and bake until the top is browned and the cheese is bubbling up along the sides and in the corners, somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes. This is really up to personal preference - the dish can be eaten at any time. When it looks good to you and you can't stand waiting any longer, remove it from the oven and serve!
Breaking up the Ritz crackers is easy if you transfer them to a freezer bag and hit them a few times with the flat of your hand or a small cooking pot. Be gentle, though – you want chunks, not a cracker powder! Until a couple of years ago, I used breadcrumbs for a topping, but the Ritz crackers add a delicious taste and texture that have me hooked. The topping is pretty popular with Papi Chulo, too! When we re-heated leftovers for day two, he insisted on making even more topping to the macaroni and cheese.
I know people use all sorts of cheeses for this dish – smoked gouda seems to be a trendy favorite right now. What’s your favorite way to customize macaroni and cheese?