This is my Grandma Phyllis’ Famous Macaroni and Cheese recipe. Made with five different types of cheese and a toasty crumb crust.
Macaroni and Cheese is the top of the list for comfort food and this recipe was my grandma’s best. I’ve changed up the cheese to incorporate Swiss and gouda for complexity (highly recommended) but you can make it with just cheddar if that’s all you have or your if it’s your preference and it’ll still be a delicious homemade mac.
My grandma was the original Good Dinner Mom and though she’s no longer with us, I still feel close to her when I’m in the kitchen. She was well known for many of her recipes, most notably; homemade pies, mustard pickles, jams and jellies that set perfectly without the use of pectin, perfect turkey gravy and… macaroni and cheese. This is my Grandma Phyllis’ Famous Baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe. It’s famous because it was often requested and since she never turned down a request, it was frequently served. Though she’s been gone over 30 years now, it’s still a favorite with my family.
This recipe is so famous yet so easy that even my oldest son Chris knew how to make it when he was little. That is he said he knew how to make it. Here were the instructions from a then 4-year old’s perspective as told at the family cabin that sits next to the Weber river. “You just pour everything in the dish, grumble crackers on top and put it in the oven. Then go out and throw rocks in the river until Grandpa yells ‘Hey! This stuff is burning!’, then it’s ready”. I still remember that charred-top mac and cheese. We ate it.
My grandma assembled her macaroni and cheese in layers in a baking dish and I really like the layering method. As the sauce seeps down between the pasta layers and extra grated cheese, everything melds together in a more rustic fashion that’s hard to explain, but if you try it this way you’ll understand as soon as you take your first bite.
What cheese is best in macaroni and cheese?
As you can see, this is melty and cheesy and it’s just right- rustic. Also, in my grandma’s original version, she used one type of cheese… cheddar, and that was amazing. As fabulous as the cheddar-only version was, I can never leave well-enough alone, so over the years I’ve experimented with the addition of mozzarella for stringy goodness, Swiss cheese for a bit of sharpness and last but MOST, smoked gouda with the emphasis on ‘smoked’. This is the flavor that makes you “umm” out loud over and over while devouring all the cheesy goodness.
Let me show you how to make the cheese sauce and how to layer this beauty before you bake the flavors together:
You’re going to make a classic bechamel sauce, or roux – Shown above: Cooking the flour into the melted butter and letting it bubble to eliminate that flour taste; add warm milk and stir until smooth; the sauce should thicken and become bubbly after about five minutes; add salt, garlic powder and cayenne now (yes, just a little cayenne will enhance the flavor immensely and not add heat). Note: I’ve heard advice that mac and cheese is so much better made with cream rather than milk. I’ve done both and find no difference in this flavor or goodness, so use milk. I do use whole milk, however. Other members in my family make this with 2% and say it’s still great.
After the roux is thick, turn down the heat and add the cheese; turn the heat back up and cook until cheese is melted and you have a saucy, thick cheese rarebit-type sauce. You can add more milk if you want your sauce a little thinner.
To layer, start with just enough sauce to cover the bottom of your baking dish; add a shallow layer of cooked macaroni, cheese and sauce; repeat and your dish will look like the last photo above just before covering to bake for 30 minutes; not pictured, you’ll then add a crushed saltine/butter mixture and heat for a few minutes more until bubbly.
The bites with the crunchy top incorporated into the cheese sauce will be the best part of the dish and I recommend using saltine crackers in the topping. I’ve used Panko and crunchy onions too. While these options are tasty, my family still seems to prefer the saltines. I don’t know if that’s because the saltine top is how Grandma always did it and that takes us back to the best family memories or if it’s just the best option. Experiment with the topping and cheese options to whatever you have in your kitchen.
Thanks for letting me share one of the ultimate “grandma” recipes. Phyllis would be so happy to know that other kitchen experts and novices got to enjoy a much-loved Fullmer family classic. If you liked this post about family and recipe traditions, be sure to check out my Authentic German Pancakes recipe that was a recipe given to my grandpa by a friend from Germany.
Don’t forget to save Grandma Phyllis’ Macaroni and Cheese to your “Comfort Food” or “Meatless Main Dish” boards and let’s be friends on Pinterest! I’d love to share tasty recipes with you.
Grandma Phyllis' Macaroni and Cheese
For the Pasta:
- 16 ounces large elbow macaroni or other favorite pasta shape You might not use all of it
- 2 tbsp Salt for pasta water
For the Cheese Sauce:
- 4 cups whole milk, divided
- ½ cup butter (1 stick)
- ⅓ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp cayenne, more or less to taste
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- 14 ounces medium cheddar, shredded
- 8 ounces mild or medium cheddar, this is not for the sauce, shredded (this needs to be separate from the other cheeses as it gets add separately)
- 2 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1 ounce swiss cheese, shredded
- 1 ounce smoked gouda cheese, shredded
- 1 sleeve of saltine crackers, crushed
- 3 tbsps butter, melted
Make the Pasta:
- Heat oven to 350F degrees. Grease a 9" x 13" large glass casserole dish with butter. Set aside.
- In a large stock pot, cook 16 ounces pasta of choice until just al dente. Drain and set aside.
Make the Cheese Sauce:
- While pasta is cooking, pour 4 cups milk into a large glass measure or other microwaveable container. Heat until hot, about 3 minutes on high. Or, heat in small saucepan on stove, just until scalded. Grate your cheeses but remember to keep 8 ounces separate. This won't be added to the roux.
- While milk is heating, melt ½ cup butter in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Once butter is melted add ⅓ cup flour. Stirring constantly, cook until flour flavor is cooked out, about 1 ½ minutes. If it starts to boil too much, reduce heat to low.
- Add most of the milk, about 3 cups, not too slowly as it will get clumpy if you add too slowly. You'll know when to speed it up. As you pour in the milk, stir with a whisk to help smooth out any lumps. Once milk is incorporated, turn heat back to medium and stir until sauce starts to thicken, approximately 5 minutes.
- Add 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, and ¼ teaspoon garlic powder. Be careful not to add more salt than indicated until after all the cheese has been added. At that time you can taste and add more if desired. The cheese has salt so if you're not careful, it can become over salted.
- Turn heat to low and add grated cheeses (except for the 8 ounces you set aside). Stir until all the cheese is melted. Taste and add more salt if desired. If cheese sauce seems too thick for your liking, add more, up to a cup of milk, stirring to incorporate and to maintain smooth texture, I almost always do this. Turn off the heat.
- Set up your casserole dish next to the cheese sauce. Pasta is probably stuck together now. Just splash the pasta very briefly with cold water and toss with your hands to separate.
- Pour just enough cheese sauce into the bottom of your casserole dish to cover. Add a layer of pasta to cover the bottom, not too much. You want the layer to be thin enough so the sauce can seep down- a bit more than a single layer. Sprinkle some grated cheddar cheese in a thin layer over pasta. Pour enough sauce over this layer to cover completely, almost half of the sauce in your pan.
- Repeat with more pasta, remainder of cheese sauce and another thin layer of cheddar. Cover with aluminum foil.
- Bake, covered for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place 1 sleeve of saltine crackers in a gallon-size plastic bag and crush with your hands or a rolling pin. You want most of the pieces to be about dime sized. Add 3 Tablespoons melted butter and toss to incorporate fully into the crackers. Sprinkle with a dash of cayenne pepper and/or red pepper flakes. Add a dash of black pepper for even more of a bite if desired.
- After the casserole has baked covered for 30 minutes, remove foil and sprinkle the crumb mixture over the top, covering completely. Place back in the oven and bake uncovered until bubbly at the edges, approximately 15-20 minutes. Crust should start to turn golden.
- Remove from oven and serve hot.
- If you only have cheddar or only want to use cheddar in the recipe, it's still fabulous. Just adjust the amount accordingly. I'd add more till it reaches the cheesiness you like.
- You can leave out the "heat" spices if you must, but if you can sneak in even ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper into the sauce, you won't taste heat but it adds a nice zip of flavor.
- If you want to add meat or seafood to the macaroni and cheese, this is good with cubes of ham or pancetta. Also fantastic if you add layers of sautéed, thinly slice mushrooms during assembly. For a fancy wow-factor, add cooked crab or lobster meat just before baking.
Recipe from Good Dinner Mom’s grandmother Phyllis. I just changed up the cheese variety.