Macaroni and Cheese

The Easiest Stovetop Mac & Cheese (With 2 Secret Ingredients)

October  1, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're meeting two spices that will change your mac-and-cheese game forever.


When I was growing up, my mom cooked just about everything from scratch: matzo ball soup, braised brisket, latke chicken, penne puttanesca, eggplant spread, and Tollhouse cookies. But never mac and cheese.

For my oldest friend, Liza, who was at my family’s home if I wasn’t at hers, we kept an ample stock of Kraft boxes. But for me, it had to be Annie’s. This jived with my mom because, like the chocolate hazelnut spread she bought for my afterschool snacks, Annie’s was “organic.” And I thought that the brand’s mascot, a cartoon bunny, was cute.

Annie's was my go-to well into college, when I finally made mac and cheese another way. Thanks to our Genius column, I learned about Martha Stewart’s recipe, with homemade Mornay (aka, cheese sauce) and a crunchy bread crumb topping. I’d make a batch on the weekend, then freeze it in blocks for emergencies.

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Top Comment:
“Mac and Cheese was the first recipe I learned when I started cooking as a young teenager. The recipe was simple... 2T butter, 2T flour to create a blond roux (at the time, I didn't know that's what I was doing.) After that came together, 2c milk until it started to thicken. The cheese was about 3/4 lb of american, with a little salt and pepper to taste. Now that I'm older (and much more sophisticated, wink wink) I still rely on the american for the melt, but always add a handful of whatever sharp, flavorful cheese I have in the fridge, along with whatever seasonings feel right that day... garlic powder, onion powder, mustard, cumin, paprika, cayenne... Sometimes I'll add chopped ham and peas, or whatever tasty things I have handy. I'm thankful for my mother for teaching me that simple, boring mac and cheese. It gave me an incredible blank palette to create some really interesting, satisfying, belly warming meals. ”
— Jared J.
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Then another Genius mac and cheese caught my eye: Melissa Clark’s. Like the dump-and-stir mac and cheese of my childhood, this recipe is all stovetop, and comes together in a snap. It’s so straightforward, even a sorta-supervised child could make it.

And it’s only four ingredients: elbow noodles, cheddar, heavy cream, and nutmeg (plus salt and black pepper).

Now, you’re probably expecting me to say something like, And I’m going to cut it down to two! But I’m not. The pasta and cheese get to stay because, hello, it’s called macaroni and cheese. The cream, which turns that cheese into an ooey, gooey sauce, isn’t going anywhere either. The only up-for-grabs element is that nutmeg—and, yes, we are going to cut it.

But we’re also going to add two other spices in its place.

Can you find the cartoon bunny?! (Hint: There is none.) Photo by Bobbi Lin

If you read enough mac and cheese recipes, you’ll see the same spice suggestions again and again. Black pepper, nutmeg, cayenne, and mustard are all usual suspects. None of which I’m interested in here.

Instead, we’re using garlic powder and white pepper. Deeply savory and a little funky, these are the standout ingredients behind my favorite Annie’s variety (if you ever see someone in a supermarket reading product label after product label, it’s probably me). Barely a pinch of each makes all the difference. (You can even apply this trick toward baked mac and cheese recipes, like Martha's. I know I will.)

Now that I’m an adult, I love to eat my mac and cheese with a bracing, bitter-greens salad alongside. A glass of wine doesn't hurt, either.

What’s your go-to mac and cheese recipe? Tell us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Michelle
    Michelle
  • Susan Alt
    Susan Alt
  • Jared Johnson
    Jared Johnson
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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

3 Comments

Michelle October 2, 2019
Um, I'm partial to a baked mac n cheese and mustard powder is a must.. Sometimes some chopped onion. Sometimes my 'sauce' is not really a sauce. But the bite of mustard!
 
Susan A. October 1, 2019
I really love a good Mac n Cheese that uses some gruyere and/or Swiss cheese along with the cheddar. The combo has better taste, I think. Also, using Grated Sharp Cheddar Instead of regular cheddar gives it more zing. There isn’t a single boxed mix for Mac n Cheese that is any good, I don’t think...all have an ersatz fake-y taste the them from preservatives & too much salt. Heaven forfend!!
 
Jared J. October 1, 2019
Mac and Cheese was the first recipe I learned when I started cooking as a young teenager. The recipe was simple... 2T butter, 2T flour to create a blond roux (at the time, I didn't know that's what I was doing.) After that came together, 2c milk until it started to thicken. The cheese was about 3/4 lb of american, with a little salt and pepper to taste. Now that I'm older (and much more sophisticated, wink wink) I still rely on the american for the melt, but always add a handful of whatever sharp, flavorful cheese I have in the fridge, along with whatever seasonings feel right that day... garlic powder, onion powder, mustard, cumin, paprika, cayenne... Sometimes I'll add chopped ham and peas, or whatever tasty things I have handy. I'm thankful for my mother for teaching me that simple, boring mac and cheese. It gave me an incredible blank palette to create some really interesting, satisfying, belly warming meals.