Friday, February 7, 2014

Effortless Mac and Cheese with A Little Added Effort

Mac and cheese almost ready for the oven
Photograph by A. Schloss

Throwing dinner into a warm oven and walking away is such a seductively convenient form of cooking that it is tempting to interpret its ease as culinary virtue. And in many ways it is. If making cooking effortless is a way of making home cooked meals more plentiful I am all for it. The recipe I created for One-Pot Mac and Cheese on page 49 of Cooking Slow is a prime example.

It starts with dry macaroni, layered with cheese, and doused with milk that's been seasoned with thyme, mustard, salt and pepper. Sprinkle on some breadcrumbs and you're ready to throw it into a low slow oven for the afternoon and get on with your life. The results are great and the method couldn't be friendlier, but I started thinking with a tweak or two the results could be better.

One-Pot Mac and Cheese
Photograph by A. Schloss
My sole problem with the finished dish, as it exists, is that the macaroni tends to sink while the cheese tends to rise, creating a thin layer of macaroni-free cheesy custard at the top of the casserole. Obviously giving it a stir near the end of baking would solve the blemish, but that would break up the crust on top and require more work, something I considered verboten for a recipe that strove for ease. 

Well, I tried it, and for the minimal added effort it proved to be worthwhile, which gave me the permission I needed to introduce a few other added-effort improvements that further perfected the master recipe. First, I took 30 minutes to pre-hydrate the macaroni so that it absorbed less milk during baking and gave the casserole a creamier finish. Plus, I toasted the bread crumbs, so that I could add them after the stirring step to create a crunchy crust that required no further browning. 

Slow Baked Mac and Cheese

Shredded Cheddar
Photograph by  A.Schloss
Makes 6 servings

2 cups/475 ml (9 oz/255 g) dried elbow macaroni
4 cups water
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 cup/8o g panko breadcrumbs
4 cups/960 ml milk
1 tbsp brown mustard
2 tsp fine sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
12 oz/340 g sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 tsp dried thyme

Combine macaroni and water in a large bowl. Stir to moisten and set aside for 30 minutes to hydrate the pasta.

Preheat the oven to 200°F/95°C.

Mixing the half-baked casserole
Grease the inside of a 2-qt/2-l casserole with a teaspoon or so of the melted butter. And dust the interior with 1/3 cup of the breadcrumbs.

Mix the milk, mustard, salt and pepper in a quart-size measuring cup. And pour a 1/2 cup or so into the bottom of the prepared casserole.

Drain the macaroni and toss with the shredded cheese. Scrape into the casserole and pour the remaining liquid over top. Cover the casserole with a lid or a sheet of foil and bake until the sides are set, about 2 hours.

Toasted Crumbs
While the casserole is baking, mix the remaining breadcrumbs with thyme and the remaining melted butter. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add the breadcrumb mixture and stir until toasted, about 4 minutes.

Remove the casserole from the oven. Gently mix the contents to distribute the solid and liquid parts on the casserole; top with toasted breadcrumbs and return to the oven, uncovered. Bake for another 2 to 4 hours depending on your schedule. 

Prep Time: 40 minutes, including 30 minutes to soak the macaroni
Cooking Time: 4 to 6 hours
Store: for up to 4 days, covered in the refrigerator. Reheat gently in a low oven. 

Slow Baked Mac and Cheese
Photograph by A. Schloss


  1. This was wonderful! Made it just as written, and even my husband, who doesn't usually care for Mac and cheese, thought is was very good.

  2. Oh! this makes my empty stomach seem even more daunting! i absolutely love how you have gone about making it, this is going to be my dinner for tonight!