Genius

Creamy Tikka Masala Mac & Cheese (No Roux!)

This week’s Genius Recipe is chef Preeti Mistry's legendary tikka mac.

March 10, 2021

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Founding Editor and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


Not long ago, if you’d asked me which macaroni and cheese methodology would guarantee steadfast creaminess, I surely would have blurted out “make a béchamel,” probably followed by “Martha Stewart.”

Behold: Tikka Mac by Preeti Mistry (not Martha). Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth.

In part, this is because I’ve seen what can happen when you forgo anchoring with a béchamel—the flour-stabilized mother of French cream sauces (which technically becomes a Mornay the moment you plump it up with molten cheese). In the mac and cheese I love and make most often, you melt cheese straight into simmering cream, stir in your hot noodles, and then have about 15 minutes to revel in glorious ooeyness, before the sauce cools into plastic sludge. (Still delicious sludge, mind you—just no longer in anything resembling sloshy suspension.)

That all changed when I made Preeti Mistry’s signature mac and cheese from their beloved former Oakland, California restaurant Navi Kitchen, which closed in 2018. (1) I was first drawn in by the rich tomatoey tinge, and the promise of heat and depth from Preeti’s tikka masala spicing. But as I kept returning for spoonfuls that night and over the next few days, I was struck by how slick and un-grainy the sauce remained, despite being built on little more than dairy products, which are notoriously fragile and unfriendly to heating and reheating.

Maybe this is because that dairy leans rich—namely, in the heavy cream and sour cream—to buckle the sauce together. Maybe the full can of umami-drunk tomato paste helps. But I like to think it’s because Preeti’s recipe wasn’t a mac and cheese to begin with.

As Preeti told me, the sauce actually started as a butter chicken on the kids’ menu at their first restaurant Juhu Beach Club. (2) “Whenever I would make it, I was like, ‘This would be really good with mac and cheese,’” as Preeti told me in this week’s episode of The Genius Recipe Tapes. Another inspiration: the boxed mac and cheese routine that dates back to the late 1990s with their now-wife Ann Nadeau. “That’s what happens when Ann and Preeti make mac and cheese,” they told me. “We make it, we take Ann’s out, I put ketchup and Tabasco in.”

The cross-cultural mashup recipe found its restaurant home a few years later, when Preeti and Ann launched Navi Kitchen, a casual spot with kheema kale pizza and fried chicken and doswaffles (dosa plus waffles, another trend Preeti started). The Juhu butter chicken sauce, plus cheddar, Gouda, sour cream, and ground chile, became what’s now Preeti’s beloved, widely imitated tikka masala mac and cheese, or “tikka mac,” for short. (3)

Even as we’re tiring of cooking every night and still unable to invite more people to the table, the realities of making this recipe at restaurant scale translate unusually well to pandemic home cooking. The sauce big batches well, freezes well, and holds well in the fridge, so you can scoop out big, spicy spoonfuls through the week to sauce your noodles (or anything else you’d like to tikka mac-ify) as you go. And, as I discovered, even the fully sauced mac holds up valiantly, as long as you don’t blast it in the microwave or oven longer than necessary.

All without needing a béchamel. It never needed a béchamel.

(1) At Navi Kitchen, sales of the legendary tikka mac benefited Destiny Arts Center, a community organization dedicated to empowerment through martial and movement arts.

(2) You can get the original Butter Chicken recipe (and see the colorful Juhu Beach Club kiddie tiffins in action) in Preeti’s The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook.

(3) If you can’t find any of the spices or would just rather use a ready-to-go blend, Preeti recommends the mustard fenugreek masala they developed with Spicewalla (but use only two heaping teaspoons, since it’s spicier).

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]–thank you to writer, recipe developer, and Genius super tipster Caroline Lange for this one!

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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  • daisybrain
    daisybrain
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  • Kristen Miglore
    Kristen Miglore
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."

4 Comments

daisybrain March 29, 2021
I don't often have sour cream in the house but we are always lousy with yogurt. Can yogurt be substituted for the sour cream? Should it be full fat?
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 7, 2021
Sour cream generally has a good amount more fat than sour cream, and swapping for lower-fat dairy will make it more likely to break. It would probably be fine on the first go-around with full-fat yogurt (especially with the cream buffer), but reheats could start to get iffy.
 
TKM C. March 20, 2021
You can’t go wrong with tandoori and macaroni. Hubs liked it and so did the 13 yr old. Add some tandoori chicken to make it even more satisfying for those meat lovers.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. April 7, 2021
Thanks for letting us know—glad it was a hit!