Step 1: Pick your pasta
Use 1 pound of any of these shapes, which excel at holding onto a cheesy sauce. Feel free to mix and match if you have a few ounces of several different shapes leftover; just make sure they cook for about the same amount of time.
Tip: Don’t put oil in the water used for boiling the pasta. The cheese won’t cling to the pasta as nicely.
Orecchiette • Cavatappi • Cavatelli • Cellentani • Ditalini • Farfalle • Macaroni • Penne • Pennette • Radiatore • Rigatoni • Rotini • Shells (small and medium)
Step 2: Choose your cheese (or cheeses!)
Change up the base cheddar-and-Jack mixture by substituting any of these to equal 1 pound. You can also use smoked or herb-enhanced versions.
Tip: Packaged, pre-grated cheese is coated in potato starch and powdered cellulose to prevent clumping. Better to grate your own. Most cheeses are fine to use, but a strong blue should be used sparingly, and a large quantity of mozzarella isn’t optimal unless you like your mac and cheese stringy.
Asiago • Blue (sparingly) • Brie • Cheddar • Chevre (goat) • Feta • Gorgonzola • Gouda • Gruyere • Havarti • Mascarpone • Muenster • Neufchatel • Parmesan • Ricotta
Step 4: Add your aromatics
Saute any of these in the butter that forms the basis for the sauce’s thickening paste (known as the roux), until softened, then add the flour and proceed with making the bechamel sauce.
Garlic (1-3 cloves, minced or sliced) • Leeks, 1 cup • Onion, 1 medium or 1 cup caramelized onions • Scallions, 1 cup
Step 5: Throw in fruit and/or vegetables
You can roast, saute or steam any of these before adding unless noted. Use 1 pound (or to taste) if the main ingredient, 1 cup (or to taste) if not.
Artichoke hearts (jarred or canned) • Avocado • Bell peppers (any color) • Broccoli • Brussel sprouts • Chile peppers, mild or hot (if hot, add 1 to 3 tablespoons, or to taste) • Figs (dried or fresh) • Kale • Mushrooms, sliced (button, cremini, portobello, shiitake, etc.) • Nuts (pistachios, walnuts) • Olives • Peas • Spinach • Tomatoes, fresh, canned (drained) or sun-dried • Squash (summer or winter)
Step 7: Top it off
This is a great place to add a little crunch or something that will make the top of your mac and cheese look even more toasty and appealing.
Caramelized onions • Cheese, grated or crumbled • Chicharrones (fried pork rind), chopped • Nuts, chopped • Onion or shallots, battered and fried
Step 8: Sprinkle on some seasoning
You can use just about anything in your herb, spice or condiment cabinets that’s compatible with cheese and the other ingredients in your recipe. Add to taste.
Tip: When flavoring with woody herbs such as rosemary, place the milk for the recipe in a medium saucepan, then add the herb sprigs and heat the milk; when the steam rises, turn off the heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Strain before adding the milk to the roux.
Tried and true recipes
Need some inspiration? Here are a few reliable combinations to get you started.
• Cheddar + Havarti + 8 ounces cooked chopped pancetta + 1 cup cooked peas
• Monterey Jack + Gruyere + 8 ounces cooked chopped bacon + 1 cup caramelized onions
• Cheddar + blue cheese + 1 ½ cups chopped dried figs + 1 cup chopped toasted walnuts
• Asiago + fontina + 1 pound cooked Italian sausage + 1 cup roasted red bell pepper
• Cheddar + Monterey Jack + 4 roasted poblano chiles + 1 cup fresh salsa
About this story
Illustrations by Amber Day for The Washington Post. Design and development by Jake Crump and Amanda Soto.