Few foods generate as much nostalgia for me as mac n’ cheese. The tenderness of the noodles and the creaminess of the sauce always transport me back to elementary school dinners, where my mom would make Kraft mac n’ cheese to my younger brother and I’s delight. Although I have always enjoyed eating mac n’ cheese, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I started preparing it from scratch for Thanksgiving. During my childhood, no one in my Ecuadorian family ever considered incorporating this dish into our Thanksgiving menu. I found this odd at one point, since we always prepared American classics like turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole. After researching several mac n’ cheese recipes on the Food Network website, I finally suggested that this delicacy become a new Thanksgiving staple in my household. Since then, mac n’ cheese has sparked multiple smiles and intense satisfaction among my close friends and family members every year on the fourth Thursday of November.
I believe that the key to crafting a perfect holiday mac n’ cheese is starting with a roux. A roux is a thickening agent that combines flour and butter to form the base of sauces. Hence, I begin cooking mac n’ cheese by melting butter in a saucepan on low heat and gradually adding spoonfuls of flour, mixing the contents of the pan continuously with a whisk. Once the roux has turned into a paste, I add heavy whipping cream and stir vigorously until all clumps of flour have evenly disintegrated into the mixture. Next, I generously season the thick heavy cream with salt, white pepper, garlic powder, and a hint of paprika or chili powder for a subtle kick. I then add multiple types of cheese to the seasoned sauce. Shredded cheddar is a must, given its strong flavor and memorable contribution to mac n’ cheese’s orangey-yellow color. Integrating the cheddar cheese never fails to excite me because it brightens up the sauce’s initial plain white shade. In the past, I have also stirred in gruyere, parmesan, gouda, and even pepper jack cheese for an additional savory bite. The sauce is ready to firmly stick to the pre-boiled macaroni noodles once its consistency is not excessively thick, but also not runny: When poured over the macaroni noodles in a baking dish, the cheese sauce ought to smoothly descend from the saucepan at a medium speed, indicating proper thickness.
Before beginning to make the bread crumb topping, I allow the sauce-coated macaroni noodles to cool down, after which I sprinkle more shredded cheddar cheese on top. After forming a layer of shredded cheddar cheese on top of the noodles, I combine panko bread crumbs, melted butter, salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and red pepper flakes to create the topping in question. After finalizing this mixture, I ensure that every inch of the baking dish’s top layer is covered by seasoned bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Following this final addition, I enter the mac n’ cheese in the oven, leaving it in at 350 degrees until the shredded cheddar and parmesan cheese on top have fully melted and the bread crumbs have turned golden brown. Although numerous peeks at the oven are somewhat required to prevent burning, the finished product is such a glorious sight that my hard work invariably feels worthwhile.
Serving this mac n’ cheese every Thanksgiving dinner always attracts a plethora of compliments, given how delightfully creamy the noodles are and how perfectly crunchy the bread crumbs are. The flavors of the cheeses blend together seamlessly, allowing one to appreciate the savory punch that freshly shredded cheese provides to the dish, in comparison to the artificial cheese found in the Kraft product I grew up consuming. Apart from watching my close friends’ and relatives’ faces light up while eating this mac n’ cheese, I myself enter a state of elevated happiness when I indulge in it. Every single bite of this mac n’ cheese reminds me of the culinary sophistication I can accomplish by taking the time to make it. Further, I think about how this Thanksgiving side dish continues the satisfaction I used to feel when eating Kraft mac n’ cheese, though its flavor and texture profiles are astronomically more impressive. Overall, my loved ones and I are highly content that this form of mac n’ cheese graced our collective Thanksgiving experience, since it successfully builds on the wonder of a beloved store-bought product.