Serves: Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons unbleached allpurpose flour
- 2½ cups whole or 2% milk
- Coarse salt
- ¼ teaspoon dry mustard (optional)
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 1 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium, heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth; cook 2 to 3 minutes, whisking frequently. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking vigorously. If the sauce gets lumpy, don't worry; just keep whisking until smooth. Lower the heat and simmer for 7 to 8 minutes, whisking frequently, until creamy and smooth. Add 1½ teaspoons salt, the mustard and nutmeg if using, and the black pepper.
Take the pan off the heat and add 2½ cups of the Cheddar and half the Parmesan cheese. Whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste and add more seasonings if you like. It should be salted well, as the sauce will flavor the macaroni.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 2 tablespoons salt, and boil the macaroni according to the package directions. Drain well, return to the pot, then toss with the sauce until thoroughly coated. Pile into a 13 by 9-inch baking dish or four 6-inch cast-iron skillets. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining Cheddar and Parmesan.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and toss with the bread crumbs; distribute over the macaroni. Bake until the topping is browned and the macaroni is hot, about 20 minutes. Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
While the classic is always welcome, try mixing things up on occasion by adding zippy green chiles or briny tuna. For a smoky green chile version, add 1 drained 4-ounce can diced mild green chiles before you put the macaroni in the baking dish. Mix 1 teaspoon smoked paprika with the crumbs and butter.
For the “tuna melt” version, substitute 1 cup grated Havarti or Fontina cheese for 1 cup of the Cheddar when you make the sauce (you'll still need a total of 3 cups cheese plus the ½ cup Parmesan). Add 2 drained 5-ounce cans tuna and 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest to the macaroni before you put it in the baking dish.