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Toppings elevate mac-n-cheese

Christian Gooden/TNS
TOP TO BOTTOM: 1. With just a hint of a kick to it, Barbecued Brisket Topping is the perfect foil for a smooth and creamy macaroni and cheese. 2. Roasted mushrooms baked with macaroni and cheese takes a favorite to another level. 3. Five-Spice Beef Topping brings an Asian echo to a quintessentially American dish. 4. A simple Buffalo sauce tossed with shredded chicken turns macaroni and cheese into bliss on a plate.

When it comes to macaroni and cheese, it’s time to think outside the box.

You know the box we mean. It’s bright, shiny blue. And the macaroni and cheese that comes out of it is bright, shiny orange.

The boxed stuff is fine for kids. It’s fast and cheap, and they can’t tell the difference. But for adults, it’s time to do something better. It’s time for homemade macaroni and cheese.

Making macaroni and cheese at home is nothing new – Italians have been doing it since at least the early 1300s, when a recipe for it was included in one of the first medieval cookbooks, “Liber de Coquina.”

But pairing it with other inventive ingredients – that’s what’s new. That’s thinking outside the box.

I decided to make several different toppings to go with macaroni and cheese, but first I had a conundrum: How should I make the macaroni and cheese?

There is the American version, which begins by making a roux – cooking flour and butter together, and using it to thicken and flavor milk. And then there is the Italian version, which begins by soaking shredded cheese in milk until it starts to break down.

The American version is a bit thicker and richer. The Italian version is creamier. They were both so great that I decided to use them both as the base. It’s the toppings that matter, anyway.


Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons butter, plus more for pan

4 tablespoons bread crumbs

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1½ cups grated fontina

2½ cups grated cheddar

½ cup grated parmesan

2 sage leaves

½ pound elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Butter the bottom and sides of a baking dish no bigger than 9-by-13 inches. Add bread crumbs and tilt the pan until the bottom and sides are lightly covered. Discard the remaining bread crumbs.

Heat milk until hot, but not simmering. Meanwhile, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir for 1 minute. Slowly add hot milk, stirring or whisking constantly until smooth and starting to thicken. Add fontina, cheddar and parmesan cheeses, along with sage leaves, and stir until the cheese is thoroughly melted and blended.

Cook macaroni until it is very al dente, about 3 minutes less than the recommended time on the package. Drain and return to pot. Stir in cheese mixture until thoroughly mixed. Pour into prepared baking dish and bake until browned and bubbly, about 20 minutes.

PER SERVING: 899 calories; 50 g fat; 31 g saturated fat; 157 mg cholesterol; 46 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,020 mg sodium; 1,009 mg calcium


Yield: 4 servings

1½ cups grated fontina cheese

2½ cups grated cheddar

2 cups whole milk

Butter, for the baking dish

4 tablespoons bread crumbs

½ cup grated Grana Padano or parmesan

2 large sage leaves

½ pound elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for macaroni. In a large bowl, combine fontina and cheddar. Pour milk over the cheese and let this mixture sit for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until the cheese begins to break down and dissolve into the milk.

Butter the bottom and sides of a baking dish no bigger than 9-by-13 inches. Add bread crumbs and tilt to lightly coat all sides; discard any leftover bread crumbs.

Pour cheese and milk into a pot and add the sage leaves. Whisk over medium-low heat until the cheese melts, about 7 or 8 minutes. Stir in Grana Padano or parmesan cheese. Meanwhile, add macaroni to boiling water. Cook until very al dente, about 3 or 4 minutes shy of the time listed on the package, and drain.

Return macaroni to pot. Add cheese sauce and stir until all the pasta is coated with the sauce. Scrape pasta into prepared baking dish. Bake until browned and bubbly, about 20 minutes.

PER SERVING: 785 calories; 41 g fat; 25 g saturated fat; 130 mg cholesterol; 42 g protein; 61 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 931 mg sodium; 902 mg calcium

– Adapted from a recipe by Lidia Bastianich in


Yield: 6 servings

2 pounds beef brisket

1 cup barbecue sauce, your favorite

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon black pepper

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon dry mustard

½ teaspoon salt

1 quantity macaroni and cheese, made from ½ pound macaroni, preferably homemade, hot

Trim large pieces of fat from the brisket. Place brisket in a slow cooker with barbecue sauce, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard and salt. Stir to combine, and flip meat over to get sauce on both sides. Cook on low heat until it is almost fall-apart tender, 5 to 6 hours. Taste and add salt if needed. Slice meat against the grain and then chop into small pieces. Put chopped meat back in sauce and serve over macaroni and cheese.

PER SERVING: 909 calories; 44 g fat; 24 g saturated fat; 202 mg cholesterol; 62 g protein; 62 g carbohydrate; 22 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,385 mg sodium; 698 mg calcium

– Barbecued brisket recipe adapted from the Spruce


Yield: 4 servings

2 medium chicken breasts, boneless and skinless

2/3 cup Frank’s RedHot sauce

1 stick (½ cup) cold butter

1½ tablespoons white vinegar

¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1 quantity macaroni and cheese, made from ½ pound macaroni, preferably homemade, hot

Cook chicken breasts in your favorite way, without adding extra flavor (I braise mine in a little water, covered, over medium-high heat for about 30 minutes). Remove skin and bones, if any, and shred meat with two forks or your fingers.

Combine hot sauce, butter, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper and garlic powder in a small pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, just until bubbles start forming around the edges. Remove from heat, whisk sauce, and add shredded chicken. If necessary, reheat sauce and chicken. Serve over macaroni and cheese.

PER SERVING: 1,175 calories; 75 g fat; 46 g saturated fat; 260 mg cholesterol; 60 g protein; 64 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 1,373 mg sodium; 1,023 mg calcium

– Buffalo sauce recipe from


Yield: 4 servings

1 pound beef stew meat, cut into 1½-inch to 2-inch pieces

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon pepper

1½ tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1½ cups beef broth, divided

1 onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tablespoon five-spice powder

½ (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

½ tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

1 quantity macaroni and cheese, made from ½ pound dry macaroni, preferably homemade, hot

Season meat with salt and pepper. Place 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Brown several pieces of meat at a time on all sides; do not crowd the pot. When each batch is done, remove it to a plate with a slotted spoon.

Deglaze the pot with ½ cup of the broth, scraping up any brown bits that may be stuck to the bottom. Pour this cooked broth into a small bowl. Add the remaining ½ tablespoon of the oil to the pot and sauté the onion slices until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Stir in the remaining 1 cup broth, the reserved deglazed broth, the five-spice powder and the crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer until meat is tender, about 1½ hours.

Mix together the cornstarch and water and pour into the stew. Bring to a boil, stirring, and cook until thickened. Remove garlic cloves, test sauce for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Serve over hot macaroni and cheese. Do not use all of the liquid if there is too much for your taste.

PER SERVING: 1,223 calories; 74 g fat; 39 g saturated fat; 233 mg cholesterol; 67 g protein; 70 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 1,608 mg sodium; 1,050 mg calcium


Yield: 4 servings

1 pound mixed mushrooms such as oyster, shiitake and portobello

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed

½ teaspoon black pepper plus a few grinds, divided

2 fresh rosemary branches

½ pound elbow macaroni

¾ cup heavy cream

½ cup fresh ricotta

5 ounces grated (1¼ cups) Gruyère, Gouda, cheddar or fontina cheese

2 ounces parmesan, grated (½ cup)

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh sage

1 garlic clove, finely grated

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Trim the mushrooms and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss with the olive oil, salt, a few grinds of pepper and rosemary. Spread on a large baking sheet and roast, tossing once or twice, until golden brown and crisped around the edges, 15 to 18 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook for about 3 minutes less than the package directs. Drain well.

Turn the oven up to 500 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together the cream, ricotta, Gruyère, parmesan, sage, the remaining ½ teaspoon of pepper, garlic and a pinch of salt. Stir in the pasta and mushrooms. Arrange in a shallow 2-quart gratin dish or a 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake until cheese is melted and bubbly and browned in spots, 10 to 15 minutes.

PER SERVING: 682 calories; 38 g fat; 22 g saturated fat; 128 mg cholesterol; 32 g protein; 54 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 758 mg sodium; 627 mg calcium