Weeknight Cooking

A Speedy Stovetop Mac & Cheese You Can Riff on Endlessly

March 19, 2018

We're always looking for ways to keep weeknight cooking interesting, from quick but impressive options for weeknight entertaining to simple, satisfying meals that can be endlessly riffed on. Here, we've partnered with Hidden Valley Ranch to highlight one recipe that does both.

Pop quiz: What is the most crowd-pleasing food of all time, appealing to folks from two to 102? A food that is humble and thrilling, all at the same time? A dish that can confidently hold its own as a main course, but also be a cheerful supporting side to anything from pulled pork to roasted chicken?

I hope you have correctly guessed mac and cheese.

Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning and Dijon really boost the savory, cheesy flavor of your sauce. Photo by Bobbi Lin

A basic mac and cheese is never a bad thing, but it is also a fantastic canvas for all kinds of add-ins (beyond just mixing up the types of cheese), from different seasonings to chopped greens to bacon. You can play around with the format, too: Serve it creamy straight from the stovetop, or top with homemade croutons for a crust-lovers version.

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Below is a basic recipe to get you going, plus a kick-starter list of the many ways you can customize the most magical of comfort foods, depending on your mood, taste, the just what you happen to have in the fridge when you start cooking.

Find your ultimate mac and cheese

For a thicker sauce, beat an egg into the milk before adding to the butter-flour mixture.

To layer in extra flavor, try mixing in different seasonings into the sauce when you stir in the cheeses in step 4. Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning adds an amazing ranch flavor (use 2 tablespoons), while Cajun seasoning (1 tablespoon) brings in a Creole vibe.

To sneak in some vegetables and mix up the texture, chop up some greens and add those after the cheese is melted—about 2 to 3 cups roughly chopped baby kale, broccoli, collard greens, spinach, or a power greens mix would all be great.

For a heartier, main-dish mac n’ cheese, add some smoky pork. One favorite is finely diced pancetta or speck, which is available pre-diced in a package, or you can easily buy a sliced version and dice it up yourself. Sauté it in a skillet until crispy, then fold it in at the very end, so it keeps its crisp-tender texture. You can do the same thing with bacon—experiment!

Use panko bread crumbs mixed with parmesan for a light-and-crispy crust. Using the recipe above, preheat the oven to 400°F and butter a shallow 3-quart baking dish. Melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small saucepan over low heat, or place it in a medium-size microwave-safe dish and heat it in a microwave oven until melted. Add 2 cups panko and 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan and stir until well combined. Transfer the finished mac and cheese from the pot to the baking dish and sprinkle the panko topping evenly over the pasta. Bake until golden and bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes.

For the highest crunchy-top-to-soft-underside ratio, take a page out of Amanda Hesser’s cookbook and bake it in a rimmed sheet pan, with or without the panko topping.

For a no-bake crust-lover’s version, top bowlfuls of mac and cheese with torn, crisp-chewy garlicky croutons. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Tear 8 ounces ciabatta bread into large chunks, about 1 1/2-inches big. Place them on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic. Toss them to combine, then spread them out on the baking sheet and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until the bread starts to brown at the edges. Remove the bread from the oven, and add several of the torn croutons to each bowl (preferably while the croutons are still warm).

Do you have any tips for better mac and cheese? Share them in the comments!

You can use Hidden Valley Ranch for spicing up all kinds of dishes, from crunchy pea salad to bacon ranch pasta salad to ranch potato salad. Keep an eye out for more great recipes featuring Hidden Valley Ranch that we'll be highlighting throughout the month.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Author of The Mom 100 Cookbook and themom100.com blog. A New Yorker, cook, and mom, I don't sit still very much.