The best “Southern” baked macaroni and cheese recipe I know originated north of the Mason-Dixon line. Creamy, cheesy, savory, with a perfectly browned lid of cheese on top—as soon as I tasted my college roommate’s mac and cheese, I knew it was the one.
There are as many ways to make mac and cheese as there are moments to enjoy it. I even believe there are moments in life that call for the kind of mac that begins with a cardboard box and a shower of powdered cheese. But for an important meal like Sunday lunch or Thanksgiving, only a true Southern mac and cheese—served in a pan no smaller than a 9×13—will do.
The common denominator of a good Southern mac and cheese is creaminess. And that means you’re probably going to need to make a béchamel. What Southern grandmas and church potluck ladies might have called a basic “white sauce” is one of the five French mother sauces that my college roommate—a biology major who grew up cooking in her dad’s restaurant—had mastered. She then amped the flavor by incorporating sautéed sweet onions, paprika, and sour cream into her recipe. The additions may be deviations from the standard Southern recipe, but they are delicious ones, giving the baked pasta a creamy heft.
There is one part of the recipe she got wrong. She calls for penne pasta, but I can’t fathom abandoning the elbow-shaped macaroni noodles that give this delicious pasta its name. It’s fitting, though: the Southern table is constantly evolving. This Thanksgiving, I see no reason why we shouldn’t welcome a new mac and cheese to ours.
Ingredients: Classic Baked Mac & Cheese
6 Tbs. butter
1 sweet onion, diced
½ cup flour
3 cups whole milk, warmed
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 cup sour cream
1 lb. elbow macaroni
4 cups sharp cheddar, grated
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Paprika, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 350ºF.
2. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil. Add macaroni and cook until 3 minutes shy of al dente, according to package directions. Drain and reserve.
3. Meanwhile, melt butter in a heavy Dutch oven or deep sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add onion and sauté until very tender, about 5–7 minutes. Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly pour warm milk into butter and flour mixture, whisking frequently until smooth and thickened.
4. Remove pan from heat. Stir in the salt, pepper, cayenne, and sour cream. When smooth, add about a third of the grated cheddar and Parmesan to the sauce and stir until melted.
5. Add the cooked noodles to the sauce, mixing to incorporate. Pour half of the macaroni mixture into a buttered 9×13 baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the remaining cheese. Add remaining macaroni and top with the last of the cheese. Sprinkle paprika over the pasta and place in oven. Bake 30–40 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and browned.
Photography by Jivan Davé