Happy national Mac and Cheese day! You don’t need me to tell you this is the best holiday out there and we’re celebrating the best way we know how – with a gigantic build your own mac and cheese bar.
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Mac and Cheese
The heart of a mac and cheese bar is the cheesy pasta. Realistically, you could just make one giant pot of pasta. However, a selection of pastas gives your guests even more variety to choose from. Plus it’s fun.
To make things easy on your guests, aim to use a different pasta type for each of your sauces. It’s much easier to direct someone to the gouda sauce by indicating it’s the cavatappi pasta than trying to describe the color or which pan it’s in.
For ease of both eating and serving, I tend to err on the side of smaller size noodles. Bucatini has a fabulous bite, but the mechanics of eating it and getting it to your plate is difficult. Especially in a social setting. Something that you can more easily spear with a fork is ideal here.
Penne, rotini, or farfalle would be fantastic options. I went with ziti and cavatappi. Who doesn’t love the silly corkscrew shape that cavatappi offers?!
The Mac and Cheese Theory tells us how to identify where the flavor of a cheese hits you when you bite into it. For well rounded mac and cheese, you need to include both an opener and closer cheese. As a certified cheese hoarder, I had the ingredients necessary to make both a cheddar-parmesan sauce and a gouda-asiago sauce. If you have not yet achieved that level of nirvana, you get to go cheese shopping!
I used the recipe below with gouda and cheddar as my openers and asiago and parmesan as my closers. Following the theory, you could use any cheese that strikes your fancy.
Base mac and cheese sauce
- 3 tablespoons Flour
- 3 tablespoons Butter
- 3 cups Milk
- 1 cup grated Opener Cheese
- 1 cup grated Closer Cheese
- Salt to taste
- Heat a pot of water until it’s at a rolling boil.
- Well salt the water. If you think you’ve added enough, add more.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
- Pre heat your milk in the microwave for 45 seconds – just enough to take the chill out of it.
- Melt butter over medium heat until it becomes foamy.
- Mix in flour. Cook it for a minute while stirring constantly
- Slowly add warmed milk to the butter mixture 1/4 cup at a time. Whisk it continually until combined.
- Once all of the milk is added, cook for a few minutes while whisking it. Do not let it boil. You will feel the sauce start to thicken. It’s ready for cheese when you rub a small amount between your fingers and it feels silky.
- Remove from heat and stir in your cheese until it’s melted and mixed into the sauce.
- Once the cheese is incorporated, use a cooked noodle to taste your sauce. If it doesn’t taste cheesy enough try adding a little more salt to bring out the flavor.
- Combine pasta and sauce.
A successful mac and cheese bar lies in the variety of toppings you offer. There are 5 main categories of toppings. I like to aim for one topping from each category, but there really isn’t a set rule here. Just grab what looks fun at the store. You really can’t go wrong here.
Crunchy Toppings add interesting textures while including a pop of flavor. I love to hit up the salad toppings for crispy mac and cheese toppings. There are so many fantastic options. Crispy onions compliment a variety of cheeses so well. Crispy jalapenos add a hit of spice and crunch perfect for adding some heat. Another great crispy topping option is crushed chips. Toasted panko is easy to make and adds an impressive crunch without overpowering the other flavors.
Meat Toppings help your pasta feel more complete. Bacon is fatty and hearty and adds an extra crunch. You can flavor grilled chicken with any number of spices. Garlic and herb is always a fantastic choice, or you can go with something that has a little more of a kick.
Produce Toppings add a pop of freshness. Chopped green onion is bright and fresh and full of flavor. I also like to slice an onion into strips and sauté it in a few tablespoons of butter until it’s soft and translucent. It’s not quite caramelized, but it helps bring out the sweetness and slightly mellow the sharp onion flavor.
Cheese Toppings despite the fact that your dish is already full of cheese, it’s fun to include shreds of cheese for your guests to sprinkle across the top of their creations.
Another cheese topping is parmesan crisps. They offer a punch of cheesy flavor and crunch.
Sauces and Spreads: Unlike other topping options, sauces and spreads will not give you texture benefits, but it ads a punch of flavor. Buffalo sauce, bbq sauce, whole grain mustard, and onion confit are fabulous options for your mac and cheese bar. I love checking for new savory jams to add another layer of flavor.
Put Your Mac and Cheese Bar Together
This is the fun part! Lay out your pasta, toppings, and plenty of dishes and let your guests dig in!
Chicken, sauteed onions, buffalo sauce, and parmesan shreds would make a spectacular buffalo chicken mac and cheese. Bacon, whole grain mustard, parmesan crisps, and chips would be a fun combination.
It’s amazing to see what creative combinations everyone comes up with. We even tried a bowl loaded up with everything and it was fabulous. The perfect way to celebrate the best holiday.