buttermilk mac and cheese

I really love macaroni and cheese. Like, really love it.

It would be hard for me if someone were to tell me that I couldn't eat Kraft Macaroni & Cheese anymore. I'm a bit of a traditionalist. I don't believe in white cheddar, I just want normal Kraft. I also don't put milk in it. I don't like it creamy. I absolutely see my macaroni tastes being one of those things that even on my deathbed I'd have a hard time letting someone make for me. Thanks, but I make my own.

But - I can't reasonably make (and serve) Kraft macaroni to thirty plus people. While it is feasible, it would be pretty odd to invite friends and family over for a 30th Birthday party complete with ceremonial koozies ... and then serve them boxed macaroni and cheese. I pretty quickly found this version of my goal on Food52. The first thing that shocked me was how much cheese and milk goes into making mac and cheese. Before attempting on the day of the party, I wanted to give this recipe a trial run.

After stalling for probably a week, I finally got up the courage to make this meal from scratch. So I was incredibly surprised when it was completely easy and done in less than 45 minutes. Homemade mac and cheese is EASY! I am not sure I can go so far as to say "Easier than Kraft" but it's absolutely faster than Stouffers. And like all my favorite recipes, you can customize the hell out of it.

By the time it got to party day, I was totally ready to make this dish - except when combined with the honey cornbread and the chili, I kept miss counting my ingredients. After one trip to the store for eggs and honey, I couldn't bare another to get more milk - which is how we ended up with buttermilk mac and cheese. I do believe that the buttermilk was a differentiating "wow factor". There is no good reason for people to tell me they loved this dish as much as they did. It was clearly the buttermilk.

So here are some notes:

  • Buttermilk - See above. Really, just use any milk. For the second batch, I had run out of buttermilk and ended up using almond milk. It was fine but the consistency of the creamy cheese was different. Buttermilk is the best milk.
  • Panko topping - This dish had an insanely good crunchy top to it. I went with a moderately aggressive sprinkle of panko flakes combined with more sharp cheddar cheese. You'll have to broil it to get it SUPER crunchy but panko flakes are the way to go. During the trial bake, I split the pan between being half regular breadcrumbs - and it's just not as good. Panko flakes please.
  • Make ahead - Initially I was looking for a dish I could make days in advance, a friend cautioned me that mac and cheese could be risky. While I made this the day of, you can easily do enough prep the day before to make it easier. Make your pasta, measure your cheeses, make your croutons.
  • Croutons - Speaking of croutons, Martha's recipe called for them. I always have bread on hand but given the "hot dog" theme to this party, I opted to make them out of hot dog buns instead of white bread. The consistency is different but also lighter than normal bread croutons. Would absolutely use these in a pinch again.

Here's how it goes.

  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. 
  2. Fill a large pot with water; bring to a boil. Add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 minutes less than manufacturer's directions, until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone. (Different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) Transfer macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Set aside.
  3. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. In the same pot you used for boiling the pasta, melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, whisking, 1 minute.
  4. While whisking, slowly pour in hot milk. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.
  5. Remove pan from heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 cup Pecorino Romano. Stir reserved macaroni into the cheese sauce.
  6. Pour mixture into prepared dish. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cups cheddar cheese and panko flakes over top. 
  7. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. If after 30 minutes, it's not browned to your liking, broil the topping rather than leaving it in the oven, which may cause the pasta to overcook and sauce to dry out.
Shopping List
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish
4 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
3 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese (about 18 ounces)
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 5 ounces)
1 pound elbow macaroni (or other small pasta shape)

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