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My Mother’s Macaroni & Cheese

Everyone has their favorite version of macaroni and cheese.

This is mine.

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It's a take on the version my mother used to make. Even though the recipe is slightly tweaked, it's the closest I've come to recreating it, and it brings back wonderfully rich memories of weeknight dinners at home. When my mother died, I missed not just her, but the food she filled our household with.

Macaroni and cheese was the first dish I attempted to cook in her absence. I failed many times over, never getting the consistency or the flavor quite right. But after much trial and error, I finally perfected a version that has become my ultimate comfort food. It's a little spicy, a little tangy and a lot cheesy. I make it for random weeknight dinners, and for out-of-town dinner guests alike. It never fails to please.

And always, always, I serve it with a fresh cucumber tomato salad.

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Enjoy!

My Mother's Macaroni & Cheese

Serves 6-8

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Dash black pepper
  • Dash cayenne pepper
  • 8 oz sharp cheddar, cubed
  • 8 oz mild cheddar, cubed
  • 8 oz pepper jack, cubed
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni

Begin by greasing a 2 quart casserole dish and preheating the oven to 350 degrees.

Boil the macaroni in a large pot of water, drain and set aside inside the greased casserole dish.

Now you're going to make a roux. When I was a novice cook this was always the trickiest part of the recipe for me, but it really is quite simple. Begin by combining the butter, corn starch, salt and pepper in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk vigorously until the mixture begins to bubble and all the butter is melted.

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Slowly pour in the milk and continue to whisk over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens slightly.

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Then remove from heat and stir in the cubed cheese. Continue to stir the cheese slowly until it is completely melted. You may have to turn the burner to low again to make this happen, but make sure to continue stirring so that the bottom doesn't burn.

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The sauce should be incredibly thick and creamy. In fact you should have a
hard time not eating it all before you even bake it.

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Once the sauce is finished, pour it over the macaroni and stir until all
the pasta is evenly combined.

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Give the top a light sprinkle of salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper. Bake uncovered for 35 minutes, or until browned and bubbly on top.

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Download and print the recipe here.

30 Comments

  1. This sounds fabulous….great for the cooler days we are getting now.
    Claire, I zoomed in to look at your pots. I have never seen handles like this.
    Were these perhaps your mother’s??? Your kitchen looks like a chef’s, by the way.

    Comment by susansteyl@hotmail.com on September 6, 2010 at 11:34 am

  2. tell me how you make your cucumber/tomato salad…
    By the way, I make your gnocchi recipe probably once a week!

    Comment by Courtney on September 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

  3. Oh, yum! You know, I’ve never had home-made macaroni cheese. It’s not really a big thing in Australia, as far as I’m aware (or maybe it just wasn’t something my Mum fancied). But this sounds great!
    The weather’s started warming up here, so an easy recipe like this one could be just the trick for a quick evening meal. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Sophie on September 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm

  4. I’m a fairly new reader of your blog and I love it! You write so beautifully, and thoughtfully! I found it searching for Chicago blogs because I was moving to Chicago and was looking for local insight and tips. I just moved here 6 days ago and I absolutely LOVE it.
    I’d also like to thank you for being so open and honest about your life, loss, and family. I’m 25 years old and my Mom was killed by breast cancer on December 2, 2009. She was beyond my best friend and my life has been devastated. I find so much comfort in your blog.. So thank you for writing it.

    Comment by Nikkie @ Little Nikkie, Big City on September 6, 2010 at 8:25 pm

  5. Thanks so much, Nikkie. Im so sorry to hear about your mom. Oh, and welcome to Chicago!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 7, 2010 at 8:49 am

  6. Wow, I cant believe youve never had it!! You definitely have to make it then! And you definitely have to report on the Australian reaction to it!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 7, 2010 at 8:50 am

  7. Love that you make the gnocchi all the time!
    The cucumber salad is so easy — literally just sliced cucumbers and tomatoes with sea salt and black pepper. Occasionally, Ill dice the cukes and tomatoes, add a little olive oil and basil, along with sea salt and pepper.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 7, 2010 at 8:51 am

  8. They were my mothers! She even had them before she met my father. Theyre indestructible, and incredible to cook with. Ive never seen any like them anywhere else. I have no idea who theyre made by. Let me know if you make the recipe!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 7, 2010 at 8:52 am

  9. This looks so cheesy and delicious! I wish I had some right now on this oddly gray summer day. Thanks for sharing your amazing recipes!

    Comment by Zora on September 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm

  10. I made this for you when you were in town in May! Remember?

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 8, 2010 at 6:14 pm

  11. Yummm! Made this tonight and it was delish. Added some sauteed onions and and parmesan for the crust. Thanks for a wonderful recipe!

    Comment by Nikki on September 13, 2010 at 5:14 pm

  12. Ooh, your additions sound great! Glad it turned out well!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 13, 2010 at 9:02 pm

  13. I lost my Mom in 2005 to pancreatic cancer. I understand about your Mom’s cooking. The smells of my Mom’s cooking was a huge part of my life. She was an amazing cook. We didn’t eat out and who would want to with her as a cook. I have two little ones and she had the pleasure of spending time with the first grandchild in her life for 17 months and I am very happy about that. My second son looks just like her : ) Thanks for sharing your story and reminding me to make her dishes more often and sharing them with my boys. My Mom will live on with her recipes and the legacy of love she left for everyone. Keep blogging and thanks again for sharing your thoughts and recipes.

    Comment by Laura Gilden on September 14, 2010 at 6:34 pm

  14. Yum, this looks absolutely fabulous! Thank you for sharing this recipe, and your and your mom’s story. (Found you through Yahoo’s “The Way We Grieve” article.) I’m always looking for new recipes to add to our meals, especially with 2 toddlers in the mix. Can’t wait to try it!!

    Comment by Karise on September 14, 2010 at 11:52 pm

  15. After reading your wonderful story I of course had to click on your mom’s mac n cheese recipe! sounds great and will make it soon…just wondering what the difference is with cornstarch versus flour. I have only made a roux with flour..and also cannot wait for your soup recipe…one of my favorite soups of all! never had with curry…with Fall around the corner time for some great new recipes to try! Thank you…also live here in Chicago and love this City!

    Comment by stephanie on September 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

  16. I also love to cook. I have never had any sort of formal training, but just do the best I can. My favorite food is Italian, since I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri…(has great Italian restaurants). I love pasta..do you have any good recipes?
    I also lost my mom to breast cancer in 2009…I have all her recipes but have not been able to go through them just yet….one day I will be able to.
    Thanks.

    Comment by christy on September 15, 2010 at 9:53 am

  17. Sorry to hear about your mom, Christy. How amazing that you have all of her recipes though!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:03 am

  18. You know, Ive actually made a roux with both flour and corn starch too. I dont think there is really much difference, but my mother always used corn starch. And the soup recipe is up actually — you just need to search through the food recipe archives to find it. Thanks for your comment!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:12 am

  19. Yes, cooking for toddlers is my biggest challenge these days!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:28 am

  20. How lovely that you were able to share your first child with your mom for a short time, and so nice that your son looks like her. Sometimes I think my daughter looks a bit like my dad, and that makes me really happy.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 15, 2010 at 10:38 am

  21. I am having the hardest time searching for the Butternut Soup recipe! Saw all of your summer dinner party recipes, etc…where do I find you’re recipe archives…or better yet, how do I find?! Thanks.P.S. My mom used flour for the roux, so that is also my connection!

    Comment by stephanie on September 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

  22. Yes, she was an awesome cook. When I was little she worked a full time job and managed to have a well balanced nice sit down meal with my dad and brother everynight. She would prep all her meals on Sunday for the rest of the week.
    I cook everynight when I get home from work..it is my way of relaxing..
    It’s nice to see that there are some many people that feel the same way about their mom and cooking….nice blog site.
    Thanks

    Comment by christy on September 15, 2010 at 1:38 pm

  23. I find it relaxing too. My friends who dont like to cook are always baffled that I do it as much as I do, especially now that I am a mother. But for me it is truly pleasurable, and sometimes an escape!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 1:47 pm

  24. Thank you so much, Claire! I cheat a bit and will pick up some already cut up Trader Joes butternut squash tomoro….what a perfect day for hot soup tho today in Chicago!!! Not quite ready for it being this chilly yet! You’re photos are beautiful by the way..!

    Comment by stephanie on September 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

  25. Love, love that TJs precut squash! Let me know how it turns out!

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on September 16, 2010 at 3:37 pm

  26. I surely will! Almost stabbed myself cutting a Butternut in half a few years ago!! So I am forever grateful to Trader Joes that I can once again enjoy it!! Be careful out there fellow cooks!! It’s gonna be in the 50′s tonight!!

    Comment by stephanie on September 16, 2010 at 3:55 pm

  27. Oh my gosh! Finally got around to making this for dinner tonight and it was beyond amazing. So cheesy and decadent!

    Comment by Kathryn on October 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

  28. Oh, glad you liked it, Kathryn! I just made it the other week too and it never fails to lure me back for seconds and thirds.

    Comment by Claire Bidwell Smith on October 3, 2011 at 6:47 am

  29. [...] the last fifteen years I’ve used it almost once a month, making my mother’s macaroni and cheese, or her New Year’s Day Hoppin’ John, each and every time marveling that this object [...]

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