Classic Macaroni and Cheese
Not the richest, not the spiciest, not the sharpest, not the most outrageous: This is just-plain-delicious, no-frills macaroni and cheese, great on its own but also happy to welcome additions. The topping can be made a day in advance. The casserole can be assembled a day in advance, brought to room temperature and baked; don't add the topping until just before baking.
For the topping
5 slices good-quality white sandwich bread (about 5 ounces total), torn into rough pieces (about 4½ cups)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 equal pieces
For the pasta and cheese
1 pound dried elbow macaroni or other small, shaped pasta
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons flour
1½ teaspoons powdered mustard
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
5 cups whole, low-fat or nonfat milk, warmed or at room temperature
8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (2 cups)
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, such as Cabot Smooth Sharp, shredded (2 cups)
For the topping: Combine the bread and butter in a food processor; pulse 10 to 15 times to yield a coarse crumb mixture.
For the pasta and cheese: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch glass or ceramic baking dish at hand.
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the macaroni and 1 tablespoon of the salt; cook, following the package directions, and pour into a colander to drain.
Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until it foams. Add the flour, powdered mustard and cayenne pepper, if using; stir well to combine, continuing until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute, then gradually stir in the milk. Bring to a boil, constantly scraping the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching; this step will take 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the temperature of the milk. (The mixture must reach a full boil to fully thicken.)
Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so that the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream.
Remove from the heat. Add the cheeses and the remaining teaspoon of salt, stirring until the cheeses are completely melted. Add the cooked pasta, stirring to incorporate.
Transfer the mixture to the baking dish, spreading it in an even layer. Sprinkle evenly with topping. Bake until the mixture is bubbling and the crumbs are golden brown, about 20 minutes. (If the topping appears to be browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)
Cool for about 5 minutes before serving.
Serves 10-12 as a side-dish servings or 8 to 10 as an entree
Adapted from the May-June 2004 issue of Cook's Illustrated