Triple Smoky Macaroni and Cheese – Recipe


The last time we talked about mac and cheese, it was this double-crust version which is pretty great and crunchy. But ever since a friend brought us a superb traditional mac to have in the freezer after our first kid came was born, I've had in mind to revisit the classic. The parts that I especially liked were the macaroni noodles (instead of penne which I usually use) and the breadcrumb top.

I needed to feed both kids and adults, so I made two batches. I simply made one big pot of bechamel base and then divided it into two before adding cheese and spices. The kid portion was straight cheddar and mozzarella, and it was darn good.

For the grownups, I was inspired by an incredible oak-smoked cheddar that I purchased at DeLaurentis in Pike Place Market. I reinforced that flavor with smoked paprika and chipotle pepper. If you can't get the smoked cheddar, smoked mozzarella would be good too. I was very happy with the results. The smoke was definitely present but not overpowering, and a good match for a little chili heat. On a warm afternoon with a cold beer on the deck, life seemed pretty great.

Let's talk breadcrumbs. Homemade. Gotta do it. That stuff in the cans is pretty awful. Much too powdery and flavorless. Plus homemade breadcrumbs are a great way to use up leftover, slightly stale bread. Mario Batali gave me permission to leave the crust on, though others consider that abhorrent. You make the call. Once you get in the habit of making them at home, you'll want to use them all the time on pastas, simple vegetable dishes, gratins… any place you want to garnish with a little crunch. I like to include garlic when I saute them for an extra hit of flavor.

You can also make this macaroni and cheese ahead, and refrigerate it, which makes it very convenient for dinner parties. Just wait to top with the breadcrumbs until the last minute, and allow additional baking time to come up to temperature.

Triple-Smoky Macaroni and Cheese
Vegetarian; not vegan nor gluten-free
Serves 6-8 as a main course

  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 8 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 4 cups cubed bread, preferably rustic, preferably dry/stale (but not moldy!)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup all purpose-flour
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon rosemary, minced
  • 1 chipotle pepper (canned in adobo sauce), minced, or 1/4 cup Frontera chipotle sauce
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (preferably freshly grated)
  • 8 ounces smoked cheddar (or other smoked cheese), grated
  • 8 ounces mozzarella (not fresh mozzarella), grated
  • salt to taste
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the macaroni according to package directions, draining when it is just becoming al dente. This will bake more in the oven, so don't overcook it. Drain and toss with 2 tablespoons butter.
  2. If the bread isn't fully dried, toast it on a tray in the toaster oven, toaster or skillet, and then allow to cool. Grind in a food processor until you have fairly coarse crumbs. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat, add the garlic, a pinch of salt, and the breadcrumbs. Cook, tossing frequently, until lightly browned. Set aside to cool. At this point people will be crowding your kitchen, asking "what's for dinner?" because of the smell of garlic butter.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 and grease a large baking dish.
  4. In a medium saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk pretty constantly for 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk. Add the onion, smoked paprika, rosemary, chipotle, oregano, and nutmeg. Simmer, whisking occasionally until it begins to thicken.
  5. Gradually whisk in the grated cheeses, stirring each batch to incorporate.
  6. Taste the sauce, and adjust the seasoning to your preference. It will probably need a little salt, but maybe not too much depending on the cheeses. Add more spiciness if desired. Remember that the sauce should be pretty intense because it is going to be diluted by a full pound of pasta.
  7. Stir the macaroni into the sauce. Pour the macaroni into the prepared pan.
  8. Top with the garlicky breadcrumbs (you might not need all of them).
  9. Bake for about 30 minutes, until you can see bubbling around the sides and the breadcrumbs are nicely browned.
  10. Let stand for 5-10 minutes (to set) and serve.

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, June 8th, 2009 in Main Courses, Recipes.

15 Responses to “Triple Smoky Macaroni and Cheese – Recipe”

  1. Reply
    June 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    That sounds incredible! Love the triumvirate of smokiness!

  2. Reply
    June 8, 2009 at 11:00 pm #

    that looks so good!!

  3. Reply
    June 10, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    I’m totally making this. yum!

    Also……SURPRISE! I nominated you for the coveted Lemonade Stand Award. hop over to the blog to check it out.!

    Thanks for all the fab inspiration!


  4. Reply
    June 10, 2009 at 10:37 am #

    Hmm. This might be just the thing to cure my husbands achy cold. He asks me to make him homemade mac-n-cheese when he’s sick, ultimate comfort food. I’ve never tried it with smoked cheese. Ever thought of smoked salt? I make his veggie greens with that and we love it..sans bacon but with same smoky flavor. Thanks for inspiration!

  5. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    June 10, 2009 at 10:57 am #

    Smoked salt can be great. I could definitely see that as another way to add
    flavor to the cooking of this dish, or as a table condiment. Everyone should
    check out Ivy’s blog at – and her books, she’s
    a terrific author.

  6. Reply
    June 27, 2009 at 4:39 am #

    A well made mac and cheese like this is the perfect comfort food, delicious and warms the heart!

  7. Reply
    John From Raleigh
    May 21, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    Wow, finally a baked Mac & Cheese I can serve to company. Over the last year, I have tried six different baked Mac & Cheese recipes and none were keepers. This recipe was a perfect combination of great taste, very creamy, along with a nice contrast in textures.

    I look forward to trying more of Michael’s recipe.

  8. Reply
    January 5, 2011 at 8:38 am #

    Nice recipe man – it’s cool to put a grownup twist on childhood classics.

  9. Reply
    January 5, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Celiac sufferers, you could also make this gluten-free; WinCo (which I think is in Seattle as well as the Portland area) has in their bulk section a gluten-free brown-rice elbow macaroni. It’s pretty tasty – I fed it with a vegetable marinara sauce to my if-there’s-no-meat-it’s-not-a-meal mother and sister, and they thought it was fine! (I buy rice pasta because altho my husband does not have celiac sprue – he is just fine eating homemade bread – there is something in commercial pastas that doesn’t agree with him. We haven’t figured out what, yet, and probably won’t because the ingredients lists look so harmless . . . .)

  10. Reply
    March 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    This was delicious and got rave reviews from my carnivorous boyfriend….he said “it tastes like it has bacon in it!” I used bourbon smoked paprika and smoked gouda. I will definitely make it again!

  11. Reply
    Michael Natkin
    March 12, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    Nice! I take it you used the smoked paprika from Bourbon Barrel foods. I *love* that stuff.

  12. Reply
    November 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    This was by far the best ever Mac and cheese. Ever.
    I used smoked Gouda and sharp cheddar. I didn’t have the
    chipotle peppers but I did have a jar of adobo sauce
    And I kept adding to taste.. faboo

    • Reply
      November 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

      That’s what I love to hear!

  13. Reply
    September 29, 2015 at 4:57 am #

    To convert dried bread into bread crumbs in a food processor you can use the main chopping blade; this will result in a mix of stuff from “dust” up to “about the size of a US dime”, or that’s what I found when I did it yesterday. Today, aiming for more uniformity and a larger-than-sand-grains size, I tried using the shredder blade and the top-feeder. The result: breadcrumbs that are each about the size of a small pea — maybe the size of a lemon-seed or orange-seed. PERFECT for this recipe. Hooray for experimentation! One thing: if your bread isn’t completely dry, you’ll end up with doughy bits stuck above the shredder blade, heating up because of all the friction, etc. So if you want to use the shredder blade, really dry the bread out.

    • Reply
      September 29, 2015 at 5:52 am #

      Nice tip! I’ll try that next time, I haven’t been happy at all with my crumb sizes.

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