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quick, essential stovetop mac-and-cheese – smitten kitchen

A couple years ago, at my second home (the grocery store, alas, not, like, the shore) I was passing through the boxed macaroni and cheese section and realized my son, then five, had grown up so far without ever trying it. I realize some people pat themselves on the back about this, but I’m more skeptical about things. Realistically, by the time my kids grow up, I will have inundated them so with so many kale caesars, farro salads and wholesome slaws, sweet potatoes, and homemade from-scratch birthday cakes they’ll have no choice but to rebel with a steady diet of sugar cereals, frozen pocketed foods, and frosting from a can. Maybe leveling things up earlier on will help avoid this outcome? So I bought a box, made it for dinner that night (with the requisite steamed broccoli on the side, nobody ever tells you how much broccoli you’re going to steam when you become a parent) and oh, I’m sorry, were you waiting for me to call it terrible? A disappointment? A memory from childhood that did not hold up? It was anything but. I love orange cheese powder and I do not wish to keep it to myself any longer.

i love this ruffly shapea little water and a lot of pasta is fine here

parmesan is all you needsometimes I get fancy with aged cheddar

I understand that the internet can supply me with orange cheese powder but I promise, that’s not where I’m going with this. I want to talk about why we like it and what I — an adult who doesn’t want to make a habit of the boxed stuff, nor live a life devoid of the dish it creates — do when I’m craving stovetop pasta with a sauce of melted cheese intensely* and nothing else will do.

stir the cheese in off heat
mix it

Please note a perfect recipe for a decadent, show-stealing casserole of macaroni and cheese with baked buttery crumbs on top already exists and we’ve been making it for years. This isn’t for those times. This is for 15 minutes from now, all in one pot, from ingredients you already keep around. And it’s a single serving, so when your craving has passed, you can return to a life of leafy greens, or, you know, do it again tomorrow.

quick, essential stovetop mac-and-cheese

* often on days I thought I’d be fine just eating, like, a hard-boiled egg for breakfast after going for a run and roar into the kitchen an hour later ready to tackle any food that isn’t already dead


One year ago: Tomato-Glazed Meatloaves with Brown Butter Mashed Potatoes and Pomegrante Grapefruit Paloma
Two years ago: Broccoli Melts and White Russian
Three years ago: Perfect Corn Muffins and Spaghetti Pangrattato with Crispy Fried Eggs
Four years ago: Stuck Pot Rice with Lentils and Yogurt and Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew
Five years ago: Italian Stuffed Cabbage and Blood Orange Margaritas
Six years ago: Double Coconut Muffins
Seven years ago: Green Bean Salad with Pickled Onions and Fried Almonds and Spaghetti with Lemon and Olive Oil
Eight years ago: Chocolate Souffle Cupcakes with Mint Cream and Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
Nine years ago: Alex’s Mom’s Stuffed Cabbage, Toasted Coconut Shortbread, Devil’s Chicken Thighs with Braised Leeks and Red Kidney Bean Curry
Ten years ago: Pear and Almond Tart and Greens, Orzo and Meatball Soup
Eleven years ago: Mom’s Chocolate Chip Meringues and For Beaming, Bewitching Breads

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Fried Rice with Zucchini and Tomatoes and Cheesecake Bars with All The Berries
1.5 Years Ago: Burrata with Lentils and Basil Vinaigrette
2.5 Years Ago: Frozen Hot Chocolate
3.5 Years Ago: Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake
4.5 Years Ago: Kale Salad with Pecorino and Walnuts

Quick, Essential Stovetop Mac-and-Cheese

I use parmesan or pecorino here, because I find them to have the maximum salty, cheesy impact in small quantities, plus, I always keep them around. However, if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll swap half of it with a very sharp aged cheddar** (my favorite of the fancy ones is Montgomery’s, but any more crumbly, sharp cheddar is also good here). Please note that if you use a Microplane rasp to grate your cheese, it’s going to be a lot lighter at a 1/2 cup quantity, and therefore less cheesy in the end, which would be tragic.

A few other tips: I find using smaller quantities of water than usually recommended for pasta is fine for mac-and-cheese, where we want a starchier effect. I like to season mine with a good amount of black pepper for a cacio e pepe vibe. For pasta, you’ve probably noted that no “mac” or macaroni was used in the making of this dish, but you can use it here. I am forever weak in the face of an unusual pasta shape, however, and used something called “sagne a pezzi” which looks like broken pieces of ruffly lasagna edges. I also love this with medium shells.

Previously: I shared this quick recipe on Instagram Stories last month using 1 tablespoon butter and flour for 1/2 cup milk, which had always been my formula here, but have tweaked it since after finding the sauce a little thick and dry, and now use less; I find this just right. Do not go crazy measuring two teaspoons of butter from a stick, just use a little shy of the tablespoon mark.

  • Kosher salt
  • 4 ounces (115 grams) dried pasta, such as macaroni or another small twisty shape
  • 2 teaspoons (10 grams) salted or unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons (6 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) low-fat or whole milk
  • Many grinds of black pepper
  • 1/2 cup (1 ounce or 30 grams) finely grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
Bring a small-to-medium pot of very well-salted water to a boil and add your dried pasta. Cook it until firm tender, then drain. Return pot to stove and melt butter in the bottom. Using a spoon or whisk, add flour and mix until it disappears. Add milk, a tiny splash at a time, stirring constantly so no lumps form. Season with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and many grinds of black pepper. Bring sauce to a simmer. Cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in grated cheese until combined. Add drained pasta, stir to evenly coat. Scoop into a bowl (okay, I won’t tell anyone if you don’t) and finish it with more black pepper, if you wish. Repeat as needed.

** I talk about my cheddar cheese fixation here, actually, and a few other favorite things.

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