This is the macaroni and cheese recipe I grew up on — creamy sauce, chewy pasta, and plenty of cheese. It always felt like a special treat to us kids, although I suspect my mother liked it more because it was an easy stovetop dish that required almost no thought to pull together at the end of a long day.
Whatever the reason, whatever the occasion, a bowl of this mac and cheese will always spell comfort. Here's the best, most classic recipe I know, with step-by-step pictures to guide you.
Macaroni and Cheese: Watch the Video
Skip the Roux
My mother was a bit of a rebel with her macaroni and cheese in that she didn't believe in making a roux. She always said she couldn't see what the fuss was about, and honestly, I'm with her. For a simple weeknight meal, skip the roux. I find that the sauce thickens just fine without clumping if I just whisk a little flour with some of the milk before adding it to the pan.
Make It Yours
When my brother and I were kids, we didn't like any "stuff" in our mac n' cheese. These days, I like a little more substance. Ham and peas are a favorite addition. Onions, red peppers, and sausage cooked with chili powder and cumin give a southwestern kick. Slow-cooked mushrooms and caramelized onions also make a bowl feel extra decadent.
This is a dish to fill you up and satisfy you to your toes, no matter how old you happen to be. How do you like your mac n' cheese?
How To Make Creamy Macaroni and Cheese on the Stove
Serves 4 to 6
What You Need
1 pound pasta, any shape
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 to 3 cups shredded cheese, like cheddar, Monterey Jack, or Colby
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon powdered mustard
Optional extras (cook before adding): Ham, bacon, onions, peas, mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower
Boil the pasta: Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil over high heat in the pasta pot. Add the pasta and a tablespoon of salt. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Warm the milk: When the pasta has finished cooking, prepare the cheese sauce. Begin warming 1 cup of the milk in the saucepan over medium heat. Whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup of milk and the flour until there are no lumps. When you just start to see tendrils of steam rising from the warming milk, whisk in the milk-and-flour mixture. Continue whisking gently until the milk thickens slightly to the consistency of heavy cream, 3 to 4 minutes.
Make the cheese sauce: Turn the heat to low and begin mixing handfuls of cheese into the milk. Stir in the salt and mustard. Stir until all the cheese has melted and the sauce is creamy. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Remove the sauce from heat.
Combine the pasta and cheese sauce: In a large serving bowl, combine the pasta and 1/2 of the cheese sauce. Stir to coat the pasta evenly. Add the second half of the sauce and any extra add-ins.
Serving and storing leftovers: Serve the mac and cheese immediately while still warm. Leftovers will keep for up to a week and can be reheated in the microwave. If the sauce is a little dry after reheating, mix in a splash of milk to make it creamy again.
Baked mac and cheese: If you have a little extra time, you can bake the macaroni and cheese to give it a golden crust. Pour the prepared mac and cheese into a casserole dish, cover with a lid or foil, and bake at 350°F for 30 minutes. Remove the covering, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and a few pats of butter, and bake uncovered for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the top is golden and the interior is bubbly.
This piece has been updated — originally posted September 2015.
(Image credits: Emma Christensen; Faith Durand)