Long Reads

Martha Stewart's Macaroni and Cheese

October  6, 2011

Every week, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: The key to perfectly creamy baked macaroni and cheese, courtesy of Martha Stewart.

Martha Stewart's Macaroni and Cheese

Shop the Story

- Kristen

No matter how haggard we may feel about our the state of our country -- we, as a nation, will always have macaroni and cheese.

It's a French mother sauce wrapped around an Italian dried noodle, shot through with cheese. And, according to legend, it was all magically brought together for the first time by Thomas Jefferson. In other words, could there be anything more American?

Ever since Jefferson got his macaroni machine, and possibly even before that, American home cooks have been on a quest to get it right -- we want the bouncy noodles, the creamy cheese sauce, and the crunchy cap.

If you find yourself on this quest, just listen to Martha Stewart. Her version is downright perfect, and might even be the most popular recipe in the history of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (Omnimedia!), by their count.

Martha Stewart  The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook

Among the cardinal Rules of Macaroni and Cheese, Stewart is clear on this: You've got to have a chamel.

Skip it and the cheese inevitably toughens and the grease breaks free. (A notable exception: Amanda's truly genius baking sheet mac and cheese, which cooks quickly enough not to destroy the tenuous impromptu cheese sauce.)

Resort to American cheese or Velveeta and sure, you lock down creaminess, but along with it comes that tongue-coating nacho cheez stickiness that has no place on a noodle. (Both of these are actually "cheese food", emulsified with water and a lot of ingredients we laypeople don't understand).

And so, we must go béchamel, which is really no trouble at all -- it's just milk thickened with flour. All you do is quickly sizzle a roux of flour and butter just until it smells toasty; whisk in warm milk and watch it thicken up as you stir; then finally stir in a whole mess of grated cheese (see the whole process go down in the slideshow below). A silken sauce is your payoff -- which is now technically a Mornay, the wholesome role model for cheez food to look up to.

making bechamelhow to make bechamelmaking cheese sauce

Stewart's recipe nails the béchamel and, unsurprisingly, is spot on in every other way too. Her sauce-to-noodle ratio is appropriately soupy going into the oven, so that the undercooked pasta can soak up some of the sauce as it finishes plumping, without drying the whole thing out.

Her cheese selection -- mostly sharp cheddar, funked up with a little Gruyere -- is the perfect middle ground between pungent, smooth, and melty.

And her crunchy top layer may be most exciting of all. Instead of the classic speckly layer of bread crumbs, she has us tear white sandwich bread into craggy chunks (or you can dice it all cute like we did, à la Smitten Kitchen). The cubes float on the top of the casserole, toasting into dainty croutons.

 Release the macaroni!topping macaroni and cheeseBaked macaroni and cheese

Admittedly, this recipe isn't the easiest macaroni on the block. Stewart's original version calls for dirtying four different pots before it even hits the baking dish. But, within reason, you can sneak a few past Martha. You can heat the butter for the croutons and even the milk in the microwave, if you're feeling wild, and you can make your cheese sauce in the same pot you boiled your pasta. If you're really crafty, you could even bake it in the very same pot.

For a frenzied shortcut, I've even skipped par-boiling the noodles first. It works, kind of -- the pasta cooks up al dente, but it sops up much of the free moisture in the sauce, leaving it more globby than creamy. I can't say I really recommend it -- but it would have been mighty un-American of me not to try.

Martha Stewart's Macaroni and Cheese

Martha Stewart's Macaroni and Cheese

Adapted slightly from The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics (Clarkson Potter, 2007)

Serves 12, but easily halved

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish
    6 slices good white bread, crusts removed, torn or diced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
    5 1/2 cups milk
    1/2 cup all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons salt
    1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
    1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
    4 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese (about 18 ounces)
    2 cups grated Gruyere cheese (about 8 ounces) or 1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 5 ounces)
    1 pound elbow macaroni (or other small pasta shape)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more genius? Try last week's recipe: Jamie Oliver's Smoked Beets.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom


Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Paula Hunter
    Paula Hunter
  • Yasmin
  • aphidw0man
  • rochelle123
  • doats68
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Paula H. November 5, 2016
It isn't the easiest because you have to wash a few pans? Please, if folks want to cook from scratch, they need to deal with washing up after. Just seemed like a silly comment to me. I love to cook, and never give the cleanup a consideration when choosing a recipe.
Yasmin December 21, 2014
Wondering if this can be made ahead? anyone? any advice would be appreciated! thanks so much!!
Tana T. December 22, 2015
Can you make this a day or two ahead of time then bake a?
aphidw0man February 4, 2014
The best variation:

Make this with the full amounts of gruyere AND the pecorino, add a tablespoon of prepared dijon or spicy french-style mustard, and top with a snowy mound of buttered bread crumbs rather than cubes, and you have my famous mac & cheese. The mustard will cut the richness of the added cheese.
rochelle123 October 23, 2011
Just had this for dinner and it was delicious. No need to keep searching for the best mac and cheese recipe as I have found it. I only made half and it turned out great. I did use panko bread crumbs which I prefer over larger bread cubes.
doats68 October 18, 2011
I don't care who invented this recipe---it's absolutly DELICIOUS. Who has time to go through hundreds of mac & cheese recipes looking for a recipe and hoping the one I pick turns out to be as good as I thought. At least this time, I was quite sure it would be good, and I wanted a delicious mac & cheese recipe. Thanks Martha's staff & thank you food 52 for sharing it.
doats68 October 18, 2011
I don't care who invented this recipe---it's absolutly DELICIOUS. Who has time to go through hundreds of mac & cheese recipes looking for a recipe and hoping the one I pick turns out to be as good as I thought. At least this time, I was quite sure it would be good, and I wanted a delicious mac & cheese recipe. Thanks Martha's staff & thank you food 52 for sharing it.
IzzyDandelion October 10, 2011
We all love pasta and cheese so it's impossible NOT to love this. How absolutely DELISH.
P.S I am a bit depressed about the fact that not many people read my blog, IT"S NOT CAUSE IT"S NOT GOOD. It's because I'm finding it hard 2 spread the word. It would mean the universe to me if you guys could check it out. I'm sure you will L.O.V.E it. Go to http://dandelionamazingblog.blogspot.com/
BlueKaleRoad October 9, 2011
This looks amazing and I love the crouton topping - a nice change from bread crumbs.
TXDjinn October 8, 2011
I'm probably going to get a lot of heat about this but when I saw something from Martha Stewart being highlighted on Food52, I almost deleted the bookmark for this site.

The reason I love Food52 is it's coming from REAL people as opposed to a corporate entity like Martha, Inc. I agree with Blake T3 that this should be coming from our readers as opposed to an industrial test kitchen that made up 20 or 30 versions before Martha found one to her liking (do you honestly think she actually came up with this on her own?) and was then processed/packaged for the masses.

Let's keep this real and honest not a corporate shill...
Kristen M. October 8, 2011
I agree with Blake T3 too -- a macaroni and cheese contest would be amazing (check out the baked pasta contest we ran a while back in the meantime: http://www.food52.com/contests/104). But Food52 was built as both a crowd-sourced and curated food site -- this column just happens to be more on the curated side.

It's meant to spark conversation (like this one!) about how we all cook a particular dish, whose recipe we turn to, and what tweaks we add. It's also intended to inspire both new and experienced cooks with techniques that our editorial team considers genius, which we've sourced from outside of the Food52 community. So far that's included recipes from chefs to cookbook authors to a restaurant in Chattanooga, TN to the owner of a cooking school in Paris. You can see everything we've covered here, including a few where I was tipped off by members of the community (like Crook's Corner's Green Peach Salad or Jean Anderson's Sweet Red Pepper Paste): http://www.food52.com/blog/category/128_genius_recipes

If you're more interested in recipes from the community, there are always the biweekly contests, plus Wildcard winners, the Jenny's in the Kitchen column, as well as our new farm life column from longtime Food52 member Tom Hirschfeld. Hope you won't delete that bookmark!
lokana July 6, 2013
TXD, are you a food-Indy-recipe snob? I am as locavore-sustainable-sprout and butcher my own breed of cook, but I'm not one to waste time in the kitchen with untried recipes. I found this site/recipe after making some dry Mac n cheese, so I'm glad to know about "Martha's" rendition of this dish. I was tired of sifting through all the mass "velveeta" recipes and the alternative vegan-self congratulatory bloggers who make this dish sound good but add so many meats or veggies that take away from the basic dish.
I've been in corporate kitchen companies, working for the likes of Williams-Sonoma and I am in awe of the creative chefs who work there and their attention to detail. Did Martha create Mac n cheese? No. But the legacy become rich when you build on great recipes. Who wouldn't peruse America's Test Kitchen, Cooks Illustrated, etc. when it comes time to make classic Thanksgiving Turkey-Dinner, if given the chance?
Until the Internet, you had cookbooks and magazines, written and edited by publishers who had to stand behind their authors. I don't know about you, but I trust a blog recipe about the same as I trust a Yelper; I listen, but I take everything with a teaspoon of salt. I'm inspired by everyone and if you cannot find value in a recipe, or see that there are people behind it, who love what they do, then you simply don't get it.
Mary C. October 8, 2011
hi! will it be okay to use dried nutmeg and black pepper in lieu of the fresh ones?
Mary C. October 8, 2011
hi! can use dried nutmeg and dried black pepper instead?
lime L. October 8, 2011
This sounds amazing. I just wonder how much the butter can be cut back before before it loses mouth power ?
lapadia October 8, 2011
Agree this is definitely an amazing rich, buttery mac & cheese! re: mouth power: years and years ago...Cooking Light magazine had a mac-cheese bechamel - lightened up, = 2% cheddar, lite jarlsberg, 2% milk, less butter (can't remember how much), no nutmeg...used dry mustard and a scattering of crushed bread cubes. I have made their version and not to worry about losing mouth power with all the cheesy bechamel goodness!
Blake T. October 7, 2011
Not to detract from what I expect is an excellent recipe from Martha Stewart and company, I suggest that Mac and Cheese is a dish - like Roast Chicken, Potato Salad and Cole Slaw that has had the good fortune of being reinvented by every good cook in America. Accordingly, I suggest that you sponsor a competition among your readers and others and publish representative versions that you judge to be worthy alternatives.

BT Newton
VAGolfDad October 6, 2011
Do you need to use a shallow pan as seen in the photo or can we use a baking dish? Life has been better when we changed our habits and started cooking from scratch instead of "Out of Box" meals. So much healthier. No matter how bad you can make a meal, generally it is not as bad as a preservative kept meal.
Kristen M. October 6, 2011
You can use any 3-quart oven-safe casserole-type dish (if the volume of your dish isn't clearly marked, you can figure it out by pouring in water from a measuring cup and noting how much it holds). We just used this pan because we knew it would look nice.

And I completely agree with you -- from-scratch cooking is better for about a million reasons. Thanks for your comment!
SMSF October 6, 2011
To Mrs. Wheelbarrow and everyone else here:
I have made this for years -- my only tweaks are to add a good half-tablespoon of dry mustard and a bit more freshly grated nutmeg than Ms. Stewart does. Oh boy. I usually don't have bread around, so I often use panko flakes for topping. Gets nice and crunchy.

Pasta recommendation after much experimentation: Barilla Medium Shells
jeanmarieok October 6, 2011
SMSF - your post is identical to what I came to write. Exact same tweaks, right down to the panko in a pinch! LOL!
ecoteri October 7, 2011
mustard! Mustard! I forgot about the mustard!!!! thank you. I usually put in two healthy dashes of wooster sauce (worchestershire sauce) just before I mix the cheese sauce with the noodles (but sometimes I forget) . I don;t use nutmeg. but I had forgotten about mustard. we had a dinner party that included 5 smallish children, last night. turns out one of the kids asked her mom, enroute, if I would be serving mac and cheese. guess we have a winner. make grownup food for the groanups. but for the kids be sure to have mac and cheese, broccoli, carrots and cucumbers. all are happy. and I had great leftovers for lunch today...
Pennie October 6, 2011
What a coincidence! This has been my go-to recipe for Mac & Cheese for years--in fact, I blogged about it myself just last week: http://passioneats.blogspot.com/2011/09/decadent-delight.html?m=1
MrsWheelbarrow October 6, 2011
Love Love Love. I am so making this. A little surprised there is no Dijon or other mustard in the cheez sauce. Good idea? Bad idea?
jeanmarieok October 6, 2011
Add a smidge - you'll like it.
Fairmount_market October 6, 2011
I agree. I add some powdered mustard with the flour when making the bechamel sauce for my mac and cheese (and omit nutmeg, of which I'm not a fan), and I like the subtle flavor it adds to the cheeses.
lapadia October 8, 2011
Good idea!
whataprize October 6, 2011
This is perfect for a fall pot luck meal.
Kitchen B. October 6, 2011
Glad you are finally "catching up." Yes, it's been a winner for years and years. Her staff went through dozens of recipes before finally settling on this one. It's the cubed-bread topping that makes all the difference, as far as I'm concerned.
CatherineTornow October 6, 2011
I love these genius recipe finds. Thank you!

Completely unrelated question: Does Amanda polish her copper pots between uses? I have a few Mauviel pots and they look TERRIBLE (lighter not darker) if not polished. The ones featured in the shots above look dark, weathered and wonderful.
Kristen M. October 6, 2011
My very, very strong suspicion is that Amanda doesn't polish her copper pots between uses.
Amanda H. October 6, 2011
The only time my copper pots get polished is when my mother comes to visit!