Cooked macaroni is tossed with meat sauce, spread in a baking dish and smothered with cheese sauce before going into the oven.
The cheese sauce is, to be more specific, Mornay sauce — Bechamel sauce to which cheese is stirred in until melted. Inside the oven, the sauce gets browned on top. When served, it creates a lovely creamy contrast to the bold flavors of the meat sauce.
Of course, it makes a lot of difference too if you start with a good sauce with which to toss the pasta before pouring on the topping.
As a rule, when preparing a tomato-based meat sauce for pasta, I combine ground beef with something boldly flavored. Our recent favorite is Spanish chorizo although we have used bacon, pepperoni and salami in the past, and they were good too. And, of course, the natural thickener for the sauce–lots of chopped onions, tomatoes and bell peppers.
This dish has been a favorite during Christmas parties when Sam and Alex were in high school. Year in and year out, there was always a request that, at the potluck affairs, the girls bring a tray (or two) of our home cooked baked macaroni with cheese sauce.
Because the holiday season is drawing near and many of you like to make this baked macaroni dish (a real crowd-pleaser, no doubt), I am updating this 2006 recipe with a few revisions and to include a video for making the cheese sauce topping which is really what sets this baked macaroni apart from the rest.
Baked Macaroni with Cheese Sauce
For the cheese sauce
- 1/3 cup butter
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 ¾ cups milk
- 75 grams cream cheese
- 225 grams cheddar shredded
- 1 generous pinch nutmeg
For the meat sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1/2 cup chopped bell peppers
- 1 generous pinch oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- 200 grams Spanish chorizo (the paprika laden kind is best), cut into small pieces
- 250 grams ground beef
- 1 can diced tomatoes with the juices
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
To complete the dish
- 4 cups cooked macaroni
Make the cheese sauce
- Melt the butter in a pan.
- Add the flour, all at once, stirring to make a smooth paste.
- Pour in the milk (we do this in increments of three), stirring, to make a thick white sauce.
- Add the cream cheese. Cook until melted.
- Add the cheddar and stir until smooth.
- Season the sauce with salt, pepper and a bit of nutmeg.
Cook the meat sauce
- Heat the olive oil in a pan.
- Saute the onion, garlic and bell pepper with salt, pepper and oregano.
- Add the bay leaf and cook until the vegetables are starting to soften.
- Add the chorizo and cook until fat has been rendered.
- Throw in the ground beef. Cook, stirring, until no longer pink.
- Add the diced tomatoes and tomato paste.
- Season with salt, pepper and sugar.
- Simmer for 20 minutes or until the liquid has been reduced to about a quarter cup (trust me, you don't want a soupy sauce).
Assemble and bake
- Preheat the oven to 375F.
- Dump the macaroni into a mixing bowl and add about a cup of the meat sauce. Toss well.
- Spread the tossed macaroni in a baking dish.
- Spread more meat sauce over the macaroni until covered.
- Drop the cheese sauce over the meat and spread evenly.
- Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes or until the cheese sauce is lightly browned on top and bubbly along the edges.
Rest before slicing (see notes after the recipe)
- Place the baked mac on a rack and cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving.