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To Each His Own Mac and Cheese

Feb 27, 2020

I have some pretty strong feelings about macaroni and cheese. First, it MUST be creamy and cheesy. Nothing is worse than a bowl of dry, gluey pasta. Second, under no circumstances should my mac and cheese be covered in breadcrumbs. Ever. To reiterate my first point, I want creamy and cheesy, and adding grit to that is not a “balance of textures.” Breadcrumbs on mac and cheese gives me a mouth full of sand and ruins my elbow noodle experience.

Recently, I dug deep into the multitude of the recipes I have tried in the past to find a great mac and cheese. My experience tells me that there are many, many cheeses that make a lusciously smooth cheese sauce, but the key is to choose those with higher milk fat content. Dry cheeses may have tremendous flavor, but they also are more prone to a grainy sauce.

With that said, you are probably going to want to cancel me and my strong feelings when I tell you that the recipe that I decided to share today leaves the cheese choice up to you. I have made it with one type of cheese, and I have made it with the various leftover hunks of cheeses from the deli drawer of my fridge. Both have produced excellent results, and, in my opinion, this adaptability is what makes a great recipe.

Cooking is about experimentation and learning what works for you. Just because I don’t care for breadcrumbs on my mac and cheese doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy this so-called crunchy topping. I like a smooth sauce that comes together on the stove top, and if I bake my macaroni, I toss a little more shredded cheese on top before it goes under the broiler. Another controversial point may be that for me, mac and cheese is the perfect vehicle to add extra vegetables to the meal. Chopping up some fresh baby spinach, sautéing kale, steaming broccoli (or simply adding it to the boiling pasta water for that last bit of cooking time), even adding cauliflower are great ways for me to increase the healthful nutrients of this dish.

I served Creamy Garlic Shrimp Mac and Cheese as a requested side dish with some grilled steaks (and steamed green beans as a responsibility vegetable) on Hubs’ birthday. The added protein of the shrimp makes this a great stand-alone dish, as well. It would be an excellent Lenten meal with a tossed salad. If you try it, I encourage you to follow your own feelings about food and make it with whatever your favorite cheese(s) may be.


From breadcrumbs to dry cheese, everyone puts their own spin on this classic dish.

Creamy Garlic Shrimp Mac and Cheese

coarse salt and ground pepper

1 pound elbow macaroni

6 tablespoons butter

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced 

1/3 cup flour

1 cup heavy cream

1-1/2 to 2 cups whole milk

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 pound coarsely chopped cooked shrimp

4 cups (1 pound) mixed shredded cheeses (For the recipe pictured, I used leftover bits of white cheddar, gruyere, gouda, Monterey jack and mozzarella. Fontina and Swiss would be good options, as well.)

2-3 cups fresh baby spinach, chopped

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook macaroni just until tender. (The noodles should not be too soft, or the final dish will be mushy. Likewise, the pasta only bakes a short time, and therefore, the noodles should not be too firm when added to the sauce.) Rinse with cold water. Set aside.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onion; cook until softened. Add garlic and cook just until fragrant. Stir in flour, cooking just about a minute to remove the raw flour taste. Whisk in cream and 1-1/2 cups milk until smooth. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cook until sauce has thickened. Season with 1/2 teaspoon pepper and nutmeg.

Set aside approximately 1/2 cup of the shredded cheeses. Remove pan from heat and begin whisking in the remaining cheese, one handful at a time. Stir and allow one batch of cheese to melt into the sauce before adding more. Taste the cheese sauce for salt and season as needed. (I usually don’t need additional salt, but some cheeses are milder.) Return to a low heat and stir in chopped spinach. Allow to cook slightly and wilt the greens. Fold shrimp into the cheese sauce and allow to heat through, stirring to ensure the sauce doesn’t scorch. At this point, if the sauce seems too thick, stir in the additional 1/2 cup of milk, if needed. Combine macaroni with the cheese sauce and transfer to a shallow baking dish or large skillet. Top with the reserved shredded cheese. Place baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake 10-15 minutes, until bubbly. Broil the last 5 minutes (watching closely to toast the cheese on top, but not burn). Let cool 5 minutes before serving. (Serves MANY as a side dish, and 6-8 as a main dish)

Fran Hill has been blogging about food at On My Plate since October of 2006. She, her husband and their three dogs ranch near Colome.


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