Finally, we’ve found our family’s perfect Macaroni and Cheese! This mac and cheese is everything I want—it has a creamy cheese sauce, with delicious fall flavors that meld together perfectly: rosemary, nutmeg, garlic, and bay leaf.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s the DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING AND NOW YOU POST THIS MAC & CHEESE?! NOW?!! Yes. Let me explain.
For the love of mac and cheese
Macaroni and Cheese is one of those foods that most people carry with them all their lives. Admittedly, it usually starts with a box of Kraft (or maybe Annie’s now, for the bougie set) and goes all the way up to fancy mcfancy versions with crab, lobster, and truffle oil.
(Don’t get the wrong idea thinking I’m anti-any of those things. This recipe is an excellent base for crab/lobster/truffle-ification.)
We’ve sampled many mac and cheeses over the years, and this one stands out! Since meeting, we haven’t strayed. We are happily shacked up with this recipe for the long haul.
Why should I listen to you?
This mac and cheese is everything I want—a creamy bechamel sauce loaded with copious amounts of cheese (aged cheddar and Gruyère) with the richness of whole milk and a 1/2 cup of heavy cream. (If you’re gonna go for it, go for it.)
My favorite part of this recipe is the complex flavor that melds rather than shouts, with hints of rosemary, nutmeg, garlic, and bay leaves).
You might think—gross, I don’t want all those strong flavors messing with my mac and cheese. But trust me when I say that everything is used with a light hand and the end result is just the most incredibly flavorful and perfect mac and cheese.
If you know what goes in it, you can pick out the flavors. If you don’t, you’re simply luxuriating in balanced cheesy goodness!
Heavily inspired by Dig Inn’s Mac & Cheese
A little backstory: As a former corporate working gal in NYC, over the years I’ve come to have a deep and abiding love for Dig Inn (now known as just Dig, though I refuse to refer to it as such). It’s fast casual lunch spot that slings grain bowls with hearty options like roasted chicken, meatballs, a bevy of roasted vegetables and unique in-season salads.
But it’s their mac and cheese that stands out. Every day, I would do a mental barter with myself to decide whether I would indulge in some mid-day mac. At peak Dig Inn mania, I would go three times a week.
Enter 2020. I was suddenly cut off from my weekly dose of fast casual fare! Luckily, Dig Inn posted their mac and cheese recipe when we were in the throes of isolation, and I lunged at the chance to make it at home.
Now, I have come to prefer this recipe over what I eat in their restaurants. There are some important adjustments, though the flavor profile is from their original recipe. At home, it’s more consistently creamy, and you’re not limited to one scoop!
To bake or not to bake? (Don’t.)
Also, the reason why this mac and cheese is a bit down to the wire is because I’ve made it 3x in the past week (on top of all the other times I’ve cooked it before), and I’ve come to an important Thanksgiving-season conclusion: DO NOT BAKE YOUR MAC AND CHEESE.
- The risk of the dairy in the sauce splitting is way too high, regardless of the time and temperature. When you bake mac and cheese, the cream sauce can actually separate. In the words of Eric Kim, “Overheating a cheese sauce, especially in the oven, can cause its emulsion to break, turning a velvety pasta into a grainy gunge.” This is just a variation I’m no longer willing to risk. Cooking things for the blog that I’ve been making for years is a bit like my childhood piano recitals. I sweat. I second guess myself. I can risk my one pot of mac and cheese, but I can’t risk all of y’alls mac and cheese too!
- When you bake it, you have to use more milk and heavy cream to end up with a good amount of sauce, which means more money (and calories). The oven really dries out the sauce you worked so hard for, as it absorbs into the noodles before you’ve really had a chance to savor it.
- Who has the oven space, ANYWAYS?! We are blessed to have two ovens, but most people just have one, and goshdangit thur’s a turkey in thur already.
I know the skeptics out there are already inhaling to make their retort…Let me just say, I have witnessed this many times over the years: my sauce is perfect. The noodles are enveloped in its silky embrace. I triumphantly put it into the oven expecting my magical streak to continue, and then…it turns from Cinderella’s carriage back into a pumpkin. What gives?!
Eric’s solution is to add a few bars of Velveeta to his mac and cheese, but Sarah had a bad reaction to some Velveeta once, so we avoid it.
Stovetop mac & Cheese is better
So what’s our solution? Cook the mac and cheese for 5-10 minutes on the stove until it has thickened to the consistency you like. The heat should be low. There should be no bubbling. You’re merely keeping the mac and cheese hot enough for the noodles to absorb the sauce until you reach the perfect consistency.
So, I say just skip a long-term bake. In fact, unless you’re making a southern-style mac and cheese, which is more casserole, I really don’t think there’s a reason to bake it for longer than it takes some breadcrumbs to turn golden.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BREADCRUMBS,” the indignant pro-baking contingency shouts!
Brown the panko in a pan and serve it tableside. The panko never gets soggy. You can add it pinch by pinch with every bite. (The panko is also optional, so you purists out there can leave it out.)
Customizing your mac and cheese
Let’s get to the other important things I’ve learned making this mac and cheese many times over the past couple years.
Cheeses to use
Dig Inn sources their cheese from Jasper Hill, a creamery in Vermont. Happily, this cheese showed up at our local Costco, so you can literally get the same exact cheese, but the giant block of Costco Dubliner sharp Irish cheddar has been our go-to.
They also call for Fontal, a mild version of Fontina. If you can find it, by all means, but I don’t trouble myself with it. I grab some Gruyère. Just don’t use generic slices of supermarket Swiss!
Another addition that has worked for extra cheese-pull factor was mozzarella. But if I’m being honest, there may be a such a thing as TOO much cheese string. It got kind of comically unwieldy, and the texture was a bit too…stretchy.
So if I were looking for an Italian cheese substitute that had good melt factor, I think I would rather go for provolone, though that would definitely add a different flavor dimension. And because you might have wondered: leave your parm out of it and save it for something else. That’s just this gal’s opinion though.
Want to make the breadcrumb topping but can’t find panko? The key here is the coarseness factor. So if you’re substituting regular breadcrumbs, make sure they are coarse, like what we show in our pasta with anchovies and breadcrumbs recipe.
What pasta shapes to use
Has anyone noticed that the pasta makers seem to have abandoned the classic smooth elbow macaroni noodle? Politely, WHAT IS THEIR PROBLEM?!
I speak mainly of Barilla, who abandoned classic elbow macaroni in favor of some twirly ridged silly version. Happily, DeCecco still makes a classic, smooth macaroni noodle.
Other noodles that work great are penne (surprisingly) and cavatappi. I’ve found that the bigger the noodle, the more filling it seems. Shells are fine, but not my preferred as I don’t think they reheat as well as tubular noodle shapes. The shells get enmeshed together and you end up with lots of broken pieces.
The Dig Inn mac and cheese uses a whole wheat noodle. You could do that, but I almost always make this with white pasta. We’ve also successfully made it with gluten-free pasta (still had flour in it, though, as it was made for someone with a gluten sensitivity who was willing to suffer a little for her mac and cheese.)
Just be mindful of your cooking times to make sure you end up with the right texture.
Add-ins for mac and cheese
Three words: Crab. Lobster. Truffle.
Er, truffle oil—okay, so four words. To this I say, yes, yes, and yes. Not necessarily altogether, but not necessarily exclusively separate either…
Mix cooked lump crab meat or cooked lobster meat into the cheese sauce along with the macaroni. It’ll heat through during the 10 minute stovetop time. When I add seafood into the mix, I toss my panko with a liberal amount of minced parsley for extra freshness.
As for white truffle oil, add it after the noodles to taste. It’s absolutely fantastic. Because it’s an expensive ingredient, I just stand there and drizzle it in, tasting as I go until it’s as fragrant as I want it.
Truffle oil was much maligned by Anthony Bourdain, and I don’t blame him. It’s because at the time, many truffle oils were flavored with a chemical imitation of truffle flavor. But for the simpletons like me who don’t feel a need to pay through the nose for a real truffle slice, natural truffle-infused oils taste pretty darn good.
Some other Dig Inn inspired recipes:
- Vegan Garlic Aioli
- Honey Sriracha Roasted Brussels Sprouts
- Spicy Griddled Tofu Steaks
- Farro Salad with Grilled Turkey, Lemon, Herbs & Feta
Clearly an obsession of mine.
On to the recipe!
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. While that’s happening, prep the cheese and the other ingredients.
Boil the noodles until al dente. (If you like your noodles with a real bite, cook 1 minute shy of al dente.) Drain and set aside.
Heat a Dutch oven or a thick-bottomed deep skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter, ensuring it doesn’t brown. Whisk in the flour. Cook for 3-4 minutes or so. You just want to toast the roux a bit and take the raw flour edge off. Add the garlic, rosemary sprig, nutmeg, bay leaves.
If you’re making the panko topping, mix the panko with the oil and smoked paprika. Gently toast in a pan until it turns just a couple of shades more golden. Remove from the heat and set aside.
To your dutch oven, whisk in 4 cups of milk, breaking up the roux. Let it thicken and gently bubble, whisking (still over medium heat) until you have a smooth sauce that coats the back of a spoon, about 10-15 minutes. If the sauce is browning around the edges of the pot, reduce the heat.
Stir in the cheese. Whisk to incorporate.
Add the drained, cooked noodles, followed by the heavy cream. (Avoid letting the cheese sauce sit on the stove for too long—the texture will change.) Season with pepper and salt to taste.
At this point, your mac and cheese will look a bit soupy, and it’ll look like too much sauce. It will continue to thicken over the stove and as it sits, so that you have the perfect creamy consistency when serving.
Reduce the heat to low, and let the mac and cheese sit uncovered for 5-10 minutes, until it’s reached your desired consistency. It should be silky, with ample amounts of sauce (it will continue to thicken as it sits).
Serve with the panko, if using, and just advise your diners that they may need to pick out a stray bay leaf or a rosemary sprig.
Our Go-To Macaroni and Cheese
For the mac and cheese:
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 cups grated cheese (3 cup minimum if you’re short; either an aged or sharp cheddar or a blend of cheddar and Gruyère)
- 1 pound short-cut pasta (regular or whole wheat macaroni, cavatappi, and penne are all good options)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 clove garlic (minced)
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary (about 6 inches/15cm long)
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 large bay leaves
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
For the optional panko topping:
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- Bring a pot of water to a boil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. While that’s happening, prep the cheese and the other ingredients.
- Boil the noodles until al dente. (If you like your noodles with a real bite, cook 1 minute shy of al dente.) Drain and set aside.
- Heat a Dutch oven or a thick-bottomed deep skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter, ensuring it doesn’t brown. Whisk in the flour. Cook for 3-4 minutes or so. You just want to toast the roux a bit and take the raw flour edge off. Add the garlic, rosemary sprig, nutmeg, bay leaves.
- If you’re making the panko topping, mix the panko with the oil and smoked paprika. Gently toast in a pan until it turns just a couple of shades more golden. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- To your Dutch oven, whisk in 4 cups of milk, breaking up the roux. Let it thicken and gently bubble, whisking (still over medium heat) until you have a smooth sauce that coats the back of a spoon, about 10-15 minutes. If the sauce is browning around the edges of the pot, reduce the heat.
- Stir in the cheese. Whisk to incorporate. Add the drained, cooked noodles, followed by the heavy cream. (Avoid letting the cheese sauce sit on the stove for too long—the texture will change.) Season with pepper and salt to taste. At this point, your mac and cheese will look a bit soupy, and it'll look like too much sauce. It will continue to thicken over the stove and as it sits, so that you have the perfect creamy consistency when serving.
- Reduce the heat to low, and let the mac and cheese sit uncovered for 5-10 minutes, until it’s reached your desired consistency. It should be silky, with ample amounts of sauce (it will continue to thicken as it sits).
- Serve with the panko, if using, and just advise your diners that they may need to pick out bay leaves or a rosemary sprig.