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Searching for the very best mac and cheese recipe? Look no further... no really, this time I mean it. 

I went over to my friend Martha's last week (you remember her, of seasonal canning fame: for dinner and catching up. Sometimes I like to call it a "summit"—these dinners with pals feel more important than just dropping in for a bite and a glass of wine. After all, there are usually dresses or jeans to return from past fashion rescue missions, breaking dating news to cover, new furniture or other finds to look at leaned over the laptop, and much more.

Plus, Martha has the kind of house where you tuck into a seat at her kitchen island and discover you're as comfortable as you would be in your own house. Her fireplaces are always ablaze on chilly nights. And there's ALWAYS something good to eat. It doesn't matter how simple the concept, from BLTs to roast chicken to spaghetti, everything somehow tastes better in her kitchen. (Could have something to do with having epicurean instincts in her genes, as her mom's a cookbook author.)

That's Martha.

Anyway, last Thursday was tried-and-true comfort food in the form of the most delicious mac and cheese I've ever had. Maybe it's the crunchy bread sprinkled on top or maybe it's some magical combo of cheeses. I don't know and now that I have the recipe, which I now see originated with the OTHER Martha, I can't say I really care. 

Want some? Here it is!

NOTE: The recipe came complete with a bit of editorializing from Martha's mom (my friend Martha, not Martha Stewart Martha), which I kept. Nothing like a little frank perspective in the kitchen. Also, I brought my favorite weeknight salad to go alongside it (mixed greens, grapefruit, toasted pecans, and blue cheese). I make a version of that salad four or five times a week. 

Creamy Mac-and-Cheese
{Adapted from Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics}


Now, please be warned, this makes a ton-a mac-and-cheese. Not interested in going on an all-mac, all-the-time diet this week, but wishing to try the recipe at last, I halved it and guess what? We still had three dinner’s worth of mac-and-cheese, or a full six servings. Which is, of course, what the recipe said it would make if halved, but I was in denial.

This is particularly delicious with a big, crunchy salad and a steamed vegetable, like green beans or broccoli.

Serves 12

8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for casserole dish
6 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to l/2-inch pieces
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. coarse salt, plus more for water
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar cheese
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyère or 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 lb. elbow macaroni

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place the bread in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour the melted butter into the bowl with the bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside.

2. Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.

3. While whisking, slowly pour in the hot milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, 8 to 12 minutes.

4. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyère (or 1 cup Pecorino Romano); set the cheese sauce aside.

5. Cover a large pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. Cook the macaroni until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir the macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.

6. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup Gruyère (or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano), and the breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes (though we needed a bit more time to get it brown, but your oven may vary). Transfer the dish to a wire rack for 5 minutes; serve.