The ULTIMATE Mac and Cheese
Mac and cheese just became a weeknight possibility thanks to this easy no-roux recipe. Traditionally, m&c begins with a béchamel sauce that is thickened by a butter and flour roux. In this version, we skip the roux altogether and use good ol’ American cheese. American has an ingredient in it called sodium citrate that binds it together and gives it its supreme meltability. Here, this magical compound gives our sauce a thick Velveeta-like creaminess, but with the flavor of more complex cheeses like cheddar and Gruyère.
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter plus more for greasing
- 1 pound rigatoni or cavatappi
- 1 pint half-and-half
- 4 ounces American cheese thinly sliced or shredded, about 6 slices
- 8 ounces mixed shredded cheese such as cheddar, Gruyère, or Swiss
- 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
- Kosher salt and pepper
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- ½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
- Flaky sea salt for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 400° and butter a 3½-quart baking dish.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta until barely al dente, about 8 minutes. You want to slightly undercook your pasta so it does not fall apart in the oven. Drain, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. Return the pasta to the pot.
In a large saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a bare simmer over moderate heat. Do NOT let it boil. Whisk in the American cheese, mixed shredded cheeses, mustard, and 2 tablespoons of the butter until smooth and the cheese is melted. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and gently stir to coat. Add pasta water ¼ cup at a time if the sauce is too thick. Scrape the mac and cheese into the prepared baking dish.
In a medium microwave-safe bowl, microwave the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter on HIGH until just melted, 15 to 30 seconds. Add the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and thyme and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Scatter the breadcrumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly golden and bubbling. Let cool slightly, then serve right away.