Baked Alfredo Macaroni and Cheese
Baked macaroni and cheese is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. It warms my soul, and I know I'm not the only one who feels that way.
While there's nothing wrong with using a boxed version on occasion, it's always so much better to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. You have more control over the flavors and textures that way. I always like to add some veggies and meat to my mac and cheese, because it makes it more of a meal, instead of just an extremely indulgent side dish. I guess that would really make it more of a "macaroni and cheese casserole," if you want to get technical. But whatever. Plus, when you add extra ingredients, you end up with more of your final product, which I'm always a fan of. Mac and cheese for days!!
I've never made the same mac and cheese twice. I always use Alton Brown's recipe as a general guide, but I'm always changing up the cheeses I use and the meat and veggies added. The only constant has been that I almost always add peas. I don't know what to tell you, I just love peas.
This time, I added alfredo sauce. I've been on a major alfredo kick lately (it's just so satisfying!), and I wanted to incorporate those flavors into my mac and cheese. I used prepared alfredo sauce as a jumping off point, and then added additional spices so that the flavor wasn't lost once the cheese was added.
Alfredo sauce is traditionally made with parmesan cheese, but since I was making a baked mac & cheese, and not fettuccini, I used a sharp, aged, white cheddar as my cheese base instead. The meltability of the cheese is a very important thing to consider when making a cheese sauce, and cheddar is just superb at melting. And by going with a sharp aged cheddar, I was still able to mimic those sharp, buttery flavors of the parmesan. I did, of course, add a little extra parm, just to keep it all legit. (If I were a titan of finance, I might have considered using only freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, but sadly, I am not. So cheddar it is!)
Another key part to making this mac and cheese "alfredo," is the addition of nutmeg. Nutmeg is a very traditional ingredient in alfredo sauce, but it is often forgotten or overlooked. Not on my watch. I added a healthy dose of freshly grated nutmeg along with some coriander, which gave the sauce a nice warmth and depth of flavor.
This macaroni and cheese recipe, loosely modeled after Alton Brown's, starts with a roux. A roux is a mixture of butter (or other edible fat) and flour, that is used to thicken sauces. Cooking the flour in the butter releases the starch from the flour, which aids in the thickening process. This first step is crucial. If you skip the roux, the milk will not thicken as nicely, and you will have very runny, stringy mac and cheese. No one wants that. Don't skip the roux.
I recommend gathering and prepping all of your ingredients before you start making the cheese sauce. Once you melt the butter, you need to continuously stir the contents of the pot to prevent them from curdling or burning. So grate your cheese, cook and dice your meat, and thaw or chop any veggies you wish to add beforehand. It's just way easier, and will save you from lots of stress. And burnt sauce!
Yield: One 9x13 baking pan AND one 9x9 baking pan
- 1 lb pasta, cooked al dente, drained (penne, elbow, fusilli, or similar)
- 4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (2.5 cups for sauce, 1.5 cups for topping)
- ½ cup parmesan cheese, grated
- 4 tbsp butter
- 4 tbsp sifted flour
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup diced leaks
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 cups milk (2% or higher) (It is comfort food after all, go big or go home.)
- 1½ cups prepared alfredo sauce
- 3 cups cooked chicken (or other meat of choice), cut into small bite size pieces
- 1 12 oz bag of frozen peas, thawed
- 1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ tsp ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp ground coriander
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1 cup bread crumbs (plain, panko, Italian, any kind you like)
For Mac & Cheese
- Line baking dishes with aluminum foil, and lightly coat with cooking spray.
- Preheat oven to 350 °F.
- In a large pot over medium low heat, sweat onions and leaks until soft and translucent. About 10 minutes. Remove from pot and set aside.
- Add butter and garlic to the pot. Once melted, whisk in flour. Whisk continuously for 5-6 minutes over medium low heat. Do not let it burn.
- Whisk in milk and alfredo sauce. Stir in leaks and onions, parmesan cheese, bay leaf, and spices. Stir over medium low heat for approximately 10 minutes, until sauce thickens. Be sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot as you stir to keep the milk from burning.
- Remove bay leaf. Temper in egg.**
- Stir in 2.5 cups of shredded cheese. Season to taste.
- Remove from heat. Fold in cooked pasta, veggies, and chicken. Stir well to evenly coat with cheese sauce.
- Spoon pasta/cheese mixture into prepared baking pans. Evenly sprinkle 1.5 cups of shredded cheese over the top.
- For the topping, melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Toss in bread crumbs. Stir well to combine. (Using a whisk for this step helps to avoid clumps.)
- Sprinkle buttered bread crumbs evenly over the top of mac and cheese.
- Baked at 350 °F for 40-50 minutes for 9x13 pan, 30-40 minutes for 9x9 pan.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool 10 minutes before serving.
**Tempering allows an uncooked egg to come up to temperature before it's added to the hot mixture, and therefore prevent it from cooking and clumping immediately when it's added.
To temper an egg: Beat the egg separately in a small bowl. While beating, slowly add 3/4 cup of the hot milk mixture to the egg. Beat well to combine and prevent lumps. Slowly return the tempered egg to the pot and beat well to combine.