Bittman Basics

Fast, Luxurious Macaroni and Cheese That’s Not From a Box

Creamy, beautifully browned, and crunchy on top

Here’s an all-American comfort food dish we’d like to snack on any time.

Most macaroni and cheese recipes start by making a cheese sauce; you can’t just toss melting cheese with pasta and expect it to become creamy and not stringy. This shortcut technique saves a step and creates a luxurious sauce as the noodles bake.

Shortcut Macaroni and Cheese

Time: About an hour
Makes: 4 to 6 servings


  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • Salt
  • 2½ cups milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 pound rigatoni, elbow, or other cut pasta
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 1½ cups)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup bread crumbs, preferably fresh


  1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and grease a 9x13 baking pan with 2 tablespoons of butter. Bring a stockpot of water to a boil and salt it.
  2. Put the milk and the bay leaves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles appear along the sides of the pan, after about 5 minutes, turn off the heat and let the milk sit.
  3. When the water boils, cook the pasta to the point where it is just becoming tender but is still quite underdone and firm in the center. Start tasting after 3 minutes. Drain the pasta and rinse it quickly in cold water to stop the cooking.
  4. Fish the bay leaves out of the milk. Spread a third of the pasta evenly in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle it with half the flour (using your hands is easiest), dot with half the remaining butter, cover with 1/2 cup of the cheddar and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  5. Repeat this process once more. Finally, spread out the last of the pasta and top with the remaining cheddar and parmesan. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs. Pour the heated milk over all. Bake until bubbling and browned on top, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately.


Cut pasta is best because it grabs the sauce nicely, and elbows are most common, but you might also try shells, ziti, corkscrews, rigatoni, orecchiette, or farfalle. You want flavorful, creamy melting cheese here. Besides cheddar, consider Emmental, Gruyere, manchego, or fontina.

Has published 30 books, including How to Cook Everything and VB6: The Case for Part-Time Veganism. Newsletter at

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