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Last Updated on April 2, 2021 by Chenée Lewis
For my family, there are certain foods that are absolutely mandatory for us to have on holidays. You have your hams, your turkeys, and roast beefs, but the stars of the show are definitely the sides and desserts. Cornbread dressing, collard greens, sweet potato pie, and pound cake are never missing from the table, and it just doesn’t feel like a holiday without them. Another absolutely crucial dish is baked macaroni and cheese! Mac and cheese recipes can vary wildly, but in this case the only kind that will do has a cheesy custard filling made with egg and evaporated milk, and a topping of even more lightly browned cheese. If you haven’t had this style of soul food baked mac and cheese, you are in for a treat.
What’s the secret to creamy mac and cheese?
Getting creamy mac and cheese can be a challenge, especially when you’re using this custard-based method. That’s why I’m sharing my secrets with you to make this soul food baked mac and cheese just as creamy as can be! But before we continue, these are secrets! I’m sure I can trust you guys to keep it on the hush, but just make sure no one is looking over your shoulder while you read this. Ok, if the coast is clear, read on…
Secret #1: Overcook your macaroni
Hear me out! First of all, we’re not in Italy. Unless you are, in fact, reading this from Italy, in which case, ciao! But for the rest of us, forget everything you learned from Giada de Laurentiis and boil your macaroni for two minutes longer than the maximum time listed on the packaging. For example, the macaroni I used instructed me to boil it for 8-10 minutes, so I set my timer for 12 minutes.
So how does this make your soul food mac and cheese creamier? Well, as your macaroni boils, it absorbs water. So by boiling it a little longer, we’re preventing the macaroni from absorbing too much of the milk while it’s baking, allowing more of the milk to form that creamy, cheesy, custardy filling around the pasta. Trust me– it works!
Secret #2: Mascarpone
OK, forget what I said about not being in Italy, because we’re using a classic Italian ingredient to add to the creaminess of this soul food baked mac and cheese! Mascarpone adds a smooth, mild soft creaminess to bump up the creamy flavor of the cheese filling even further! I got this idea from my Uncle Glenn, who told me about using mascarpone many Thanksgivings ago when I asked him how his mac and cheese was so amazing!
Secret #3: Coat your macaroni in butter
You may have gathered from secret #1 that the key to making this soul food baked mac and cheese super creamy is keeping the macaroni from absorbing too much liquid as it bakes. That’s what this step is about as well! Tossing the cooked macaroni in butter before adding the other ingredients creates a barrier that prevents the other liquids from penetrating the macaroni as it bakes. It should help you to end up with more cheesy custard filling that makes the finished dish delicious!
Not-So-Secret #4: Freshly Grated Cheese
This definitely isn’t much of a secret. But you’d be surprised how many people still use pre-shredded cheese to make their macaroni and cheese! It’s so much faster, but pre-shredded cheese is often coated with cellulose (wood pulp!) to prevent it from sticking together, which dries it out significantly. This dryness will then translate into your dishes, which we definitely don’t want. For this soul food baked mac and cheese, you should definitely buy your cheese in blocks and grate it yourself to keep the sauce nice and creamy. It’s an extra step, but makes a huge difference!
And there you go. You’re well on your way to making this amazing soul food baked mac and cheese! Here’s everything else you’ll need:
- elbow macaroni – you’ll need 8 ounces of macaroni (or small shells, or cavatappi, or whatever similar pasta shape you prefer. I find elbow macaroni is best for holding all that yummy cheese). So it’s about half of a one-pound box.
- butter – I use salted, but you can use either salted or unsalted and adjust your seasonings accordingly.
- extra-sharp aged cheddar cheese – This cheese forms is the largest portion of the flavors in this soul food mac and cheese, so be sure to get the good stuff! I like to use a really good quality white cheddar that’s been aged at least 12 months for the most flavor. It should come in a block for you to grate yourself — trust me, it makes a big difference in this soul food baked mac and cheese!
- mild cheddar cheese – you can also use any mild, melty cheese you like. Mild cheddar, gouda, jack, mozzarella, or fontina all work! Again, in block form for you to grate yourself.
- whole milk – you can also use low-fat milk, and it still works well.
- evaporated milk – if you don’t have evaporated milk, you can use a cup of heavy cream and omit the butter.
- salt – you can adjust the amount of salt to your taste, along with the seasonings below, before adding your egg.
- cajun or creole seasoning – I like the flavor boost from creole seasoning, especially with the blend of cheeses. I like Tony Chachere’s.
- dry mustard powder – adds a slight tangy flavor that goes so well with the cheese.
- ground nutmeg – I always have whole nutmeg on hand to grate fresh, but in this recipe ground nutmeg works great too.
- egg – beaten well.
- cracked black pepper – to add to the top before baking. You can also add paprika or more cajun seasoning.
Tips and F.A.Q.
It’s a matter of texture. In this soul food baked mac and cheese recipe, we’re going for a creamy, yet slightly firm custard-like filling that is distinct from stovetop macaroni and cheese. Many baked macaroni and cheese recipes use a roux to make a cheese sauce on the stovetop, and then transfer the mac and cheese to a dish, add more cheese and/or breadcrumbs, and bake it.
In my experience, the texture is different in a roux-based mac and cheese than with a custard mac and cheese. Because of the egg and evaporated milk we’re using, my baked mac and cheese comes out a bit firmer and more casserole-like, but still able to achieve that rich creaminess that we all love!
If you’ve ever made a pumpkin pie, a flan, or maybe a bread pudding, you may be familiar with evaporated milk. Evaporated milk is simply milk where some of the water has, well, evaporated. Because of the missing water, it has a higher protein content than regular milk, and it makes everything creamier without adding extra fat (the way heavy cream would). It’s perfect in baked goods when you want to create a custard made from eggs and milk, because it adds extra creaminess compared to regular milk.
Yes! You can prepare this baked mac and cheese the night before and bake the following day. Just complete all the steps except the last one (baking), and place in the fridge covered with plastic wrap. The next day, bake in preheated oven as normal, although you may need to add 5-10 minutes to the cook time.
Yes, this soul food baked mac and cheese freezes very well! Just cool the mac and cheese completely, cover tightly with plastic wrap and foil, and freeze for up to 2 months. Allow to thaw, still wrapped, in the fridge before baking as usual. I actually use this method to make my mac and cheese ahead of time for most Thanksgivings!
This soul food baked mac and cheese is somewhat unique as it’s one of only a handful of savory recipes here on my blog. That’s mainly because I don’t have many go-to savory recipes, but the ones I do share are definitely my faves! That definitely holds true for this Spicy Shrimp Pasta Salad. It’s another one inspired by my Uncle Glenn’s delicious recipes, and it’s SO easy!
If you’re looking for a main dish to make with this soul food mac and cheese, you have got to try my beer-braised Pressure Cooker Ham. Like this mac and cheese, it’s based on a family recipe, but the Instant Pot makes it so quick and easy! Try it for your next family dinner!
Equipment you may need
- 8 oz. elbow macaroni - about half a 16-oz. box
- 2 tbsp salted butter - plus more for baking dish
- 1 large egg - beaten
- 1 13 oz. can evaporated milk
- 1½ cup whole milk
- 1 8-oz. block extra-sharp white cheddar cheese block - good quality
- 1 8-oz. block mild cheddar cheese - good quality
- 8 oz mascarpone cheese - room temperature
- 1.5 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp cajun or creole seasoning
- ½ tsp dry mustard powder
- ⅛ tsp ground nutmeg
- fresh cracked pepper - for topping
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat a 3-quart casserole dish or 9×13 pan with butter or spray with cooking spray.
- Cook macaroni according to package directions, adding 2 minutes to the maximum time listed on the package. Drain; stir butter into macaroni until butter is melted.
- While macaroni is boiling, shred both cheddar cheese blocks using a box grater. Combine shredded cheese until evenly mix, then set aside about half of shredded cheese mixture for later.
- In a large bowl, whisk together mascarpone and evaporated milk until smooth (there may still be some lumps, which are okay).
- Mix in the whole milk, followed by the salt, creole seasoning, mustard powder, and nutmeg. Stir in half of the shredded cheese mixture.
- Taste mixture to see if seasonings are to your preference and adjust if necessary. Stir in beaten egg.
- Add buttered macaroni to milk/cheese mixture and stir to combine. Pour the whole mixture into your prepared casserole dish.
- Sprinkle remaining shredded cheese evenly over the top, followed by some fresh cracked pepper, if you like.
- Bake in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until cheese on top is melted and browned, and filling is bubbling. Cool slightly before serving.
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