Creamy, cheesy, pasta-y, and really doesn't take much longer than the boxed version.
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1/2 pound shredded cheddar cheese (see notes)
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Ground black pepper
Optional (but strongly encouraged): about 3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Regianno cheese
1. Cook the pasta in a medium-sized pot of heavily salted water. Remove the pasta from the water when it is still al dente (which is usually 1-2 minutes earlier than the package instructions recommend). Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta.
2. In the same pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to make a smooth paste. Whisk in the milk, then turn the heat to high. Allow the sauce to come to a boil and thicken, whisking occasionally.
3. Turn the heat to low and stir in the nutmeg, followed by the cheddar cheese. Stir for a few minutes, allowing the cheese to fully melt into the sauce. Stir the macaroni into the sauce and taste. Taste and add salt and a grind of pepper if needed (if your pasta water was well-salted, you probably won't need to any salt.) If at any point the dish begins to thicken too much, stir in the reserved pasta water.
4. Serve right away, topping each serving with the optional parmesan cheese if using, and a sprinkle of black pepper.
This recipe calls for cheddar cheese, and you've got some options. The sharper the cheddar you use, the more pronounced the cheese flavor in the final dish. If you want a really cheesy flavor you can use all sharp cheddar, or you could use a combination of sharp and medium. (I generally use whatever I happen to have on hand, which is often medium cheddar, and I usually wish I had sharp.)
You can also use a combination of cheeses, instead of all-cheddar. Melty cheeses with a pronounced cheesy flavor are best here, so cheeses like fontina and gouda are good options that can add some complexity to the dish. I would usually use these in combination with cheddar, which is the traditional American flavor touchstone.
Full disclosure: I always grate my own cheese, so I haven't made this with pre-grated supermarket cheese. I would think the pre-grated cheese would probably work fine, but I just don't know for sure. The thing is that pre-grated cheeses are tossed with an anti-caking agent (eg, cellulose), so that they don't clump up in transit. This tends to dull the flavor a bit, and can also tend to get in the way of the melting action. These may be minor differences that most folks wouldn't notice, but I want to put it out there. It only takes a few minutes to grate your own cheese while you wait for the pasta to cook, but if pre-grated cheese makes your life easier, give it a shot! And let us know in the comments how it works for you.
This recipe was featured in our Series of Unfortunate Recipes, inspired by the foods in the Lemony Snicket books and Netflix series. (Don't worry - this dish is delicious. It's the story that's unfortunate.)