Marvelous Mac ‘n’ Cheese

 The ultimate comfort food.

In the parlance of journalism, Clark Wolf is what we reporters gleefully call a “quote machine.”

If we need a pithy, memorable quote about food, chefs, restaurants, or eating trends, who we gonna call?

Invariably, Clark Wolf.

The restaurant consultant, who lives in Sonoma County, has a gift for gab, a way with words, a wondrous wit, and is not shy in the least about giving voice to the downright outrageous. Plus, as a former manager for the San Francisco Oakville Grocery and a foodie who’s rubbed shoulders with everyone who’s anyone in the culinary world, he definitely knows his stuff.

Former New York Times food writer Marian Burros and I once joked to each other that the day was coming when our respective publications would issue a moratorium on Clark Wolf quotes because they were just so prevalent.

Fortunately, that day never came.

You’ll still find him being quoted in many a food story. And now, you’ll also find him on the book shelves with his new “American Cheeses” (Simon  & Schuster) tome.

Wolf, who ran a cheese shop in San Francisco in 1976, profiles the men and women whose work created the incredible artisan cheese industry in this country. He also includes recipes for everything from A Perfect Pimento Cheese to Escargots with Roasted Garlic and Gorgonzola. And it’s all told in a way only he can tell it.

“The way a cheese, or any food, looks has a lot to do with my decision about whether or not to toss it into the shopping basket,” he writes in the book. “Some of it is learned. A lot of us have gotten over the need to pick what looks like picture-perfect fruits and vegetables, realizing that sometimes, say, an apple bred for visual perfection can taste a lot like packing material. We’ve come to know that a bruise here, a funny stripe there, an odd shape, or a varied coloration, can, for the right variety, mean peak seasonal bliss.

“So, too, with cheese. Sometimes the moldy, aged, smelly slime on the outside suggests creamy within.

“But mostly, it is good if it looks good. And if it looks like fermented roadkill, it might be best to ask a few questions and inquire about trying a little taste.”

Aged white cheddar macaroni and cheese.

You have to smile at that. And at this sublime macaroni and cheese recipe from the book. This one was created for a restaurant Wolf was a partner of in 1990s. The dish was then redeveloped for the SoHo Grand Hotel in Manhattan. Finally, Burros adapted it into a more home-kichen-friendly version in her book, “Cooking for Comfort” (Simon & Schuster).

What I love about this rendition is that it’s not a mac ‘n’ cheese that’s over-the-top, artery-clogging, can’t-eat-more-than-two-bites fare.

The one and only Clark Wolf. (Photo courtesy of Scott Mitchell)

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s plenty rich from extra sharp aged white cheddar. But the binder is low-fat milk. A spoonful of Dijon mustard gives it that little something-something. A few drops of hot pepper sauce lend just the lightest of kicks. And a topping of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano gives it an extra cheesy boost.

It’s a mac ‘n’ cheese to enjoy without having to don elastic-waist pants for the occasion.

It’s a classic version you’ll probably end up making more often than any overloaded one.

So, who am I gonna turn to when jonesing for mac ‘n’ cheese?

You know it — Clark Wolf.

Macaroni and Cheese

(serves 3 or 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side dish)

1 cup diced onion

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 cups low-fat milk

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

12 ounces grated extra sharp aged white cheddar

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon hot pepper sauce (or to taste)

8 ounces cavatappi or other corkscrew pasta

2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven.

In a large saucepan, cook onion in butter over low heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until onion is soft but not browned. Stir in the flour. Remove from heat and whisk in milk until thoroughly blended. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in mustard and 10 ounces (2 ½ cups) of cheddar, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and hot pepper sauce.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions until just al dente. Drain but do not rinse. Stir immediately into the cheese sauce until well blended. Adjust seasoning.

Spoon mixture into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Top with remaining 2 ounces cheddar and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake for about 30 minutes, until mixture is hot, bubbling throughout, and golden.

Notes: The casserole can be refrigerated before baking. Let the dish return to room temperature and follow baking directions.

The quality and sharpness of the cheese are all-important to the success of this dish. Use a white cheddar that has been aged at least two years. Grafton Village cheese is always Wolf’s choice.

From “American Cheeses”

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  • I adore those crispy bits of macaroni and the contrasting gooey cheese…wonderful job on the M & C!

  • OK, I just finished breakfast and then saw that crunchy, semi-blackened bit at the edge of the casserole–and almost fainted. I’m the guy that eats the rim of the mac-and-cheese, leaving the softer center to others. Mmmm. And so making it in a 9 x 13-inch baking dish rather than the more standard round, deep pan is always genius by me.

  • Thanks for sharing the mac and cheese recipe and all the detail in your post. It seems like a lot of blog readers have a tendency to skip over the details and go straight to the photos and recipes, but I love the context around the recipe. Great post.

    One look from the pictures tells that the mac & cheese must be lovely. So far my favorite recipe is a very cheesy version from Artisenal in NYC, but Mac & Cheese is one of my favorite things to make and I am always open to new recipes.

  • A recipe that ran in the NY Times a couple years ago is my “go to” for mac ‘n’ cheese, but this looks and sounds good enough to break with tradition. I have a “comfort party” coming up, so I think I’ll give this a try.

  • You know, I’ve never made homemade baked mac & cheese before. Always relied on the boxes (never the blue box – Annie’s only! and deluxe when I could find it on sale), but now that my boyfriend has expressed an interested in good cheese (no more shakey parmesan for us!) I need to make this.

  • I love mac and cheese. My recipe is very similar to this – except I add in crisped pancetta, top with butter-doused panko crumbs, and bake until nice and browned! Also, I generally skip the tabasco – and add a dash of worcestershire sauce instead! Gives it a bit of an earthy finish.

  • I love mac and cheese, this looks like a great version to try. I normally don’t use a recipe, I just throw in whatever amounts look right 🙂

  • You know, I normally don’t make Mac n’ Cheese because of the fact that it’s so heavy on the carbs and dairy. But this version does sound a bit better for you so I may give it a try, especially if it turns out as wonderfully golden with the crispy edges like yours!

  • We tend to think of macaroni and cheese as the quintessential American food, but other food cultures claim it as well. I’ve known a number of French chefs who reminisced about their grandmother’s macaroni au gratin. My favorite version ( is from “Gastronomie Pratique” by Ali-Bab, first published in 1907, which contains two versions of mac ‘n’ cheese.

  • I love me Mac and Cheese in pretty much any form (and yes, we had that blue and yellow boxed stuff last week when we were hungry and had nothing in the fridge). I’ll have to give this version a try.

  • Sounds like we all are fans of the crispy edges. I bet we all fight over them on brownies and muffins, too. But heck, they are the best part!

    Anna, don’t apologize. I have succumbed to the convenience of the boxed stuff, too. Do you like Annie’s white cheddar version? If so, you will like today’s recipe even better. Let’s face it, convenience and quickness come with a price — namely limp, characterless noodles and a cheese sauce that is all well and creamy, but nothing to write home about. When you make it from scratch with this recipe, you get noodles that are toothsome, with a VERY deep cheddar flavor, and of course, those lovely golden, crispy edges to swoon over.

  • It’s the pasta that can make your mac too. Cavatappi is one of the best. It’s long and spiral-y and holds the cheese well.

  • OMG, I am salvating – that looks fantastic!

  • looks good! I love that shape pasta in mac and cheese- the hold lots of sauce. 🙂

  • You’re making me crazy with this talk of mac & cheeese! Are you coming to the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma – March 20-23? Clark is our opening speaker for the day of education. Please come, Carolyn!

  • That mac and cheese looks just perfect! How delicious!

  • I’ve shied away from making mac’n’cheese in the past because of its calorie density. What I really need to do is remember that quality always trumps quantity. It would probably take a huge serving of mediocre mac to match the awesome flavor that just one or two bites of this beauty promises!

  • I am a cheeseaholic. The mere mention of fermentation and moldy rinds actually makes me quiver. I love that this MnC is exactly what MnC SHOULD be – straight forward, honest, uncluttered cooking. And cheesy. Can’t forget cheesy.

  • This looks incredible … like I want to make it tonight!! I’m happy to see such a nice version that isn’t laden with the usual shockingly enormous calorie count. I’m sure it has its share of calories, but I can feel a little better about eating it if it’s made with lowfat milk. Dijon & hot sauce are two secret ingreds. that I’ve used in mac & cheese before. Thanks for sharing!

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  • Lynne: Clark emailed me, saying he enjoyed this post. He saw it just before he was about to do a panel discussion at NYU. See what I mean: The guy IS a quote machine. He’s always being asked to speak. 😉

    I wish, wish, wish I could make it to the cheese fest, but I’ll actually be judging chocolate in San Francisco then. I know — cheese or chocolate, cheese or chocolate — what a tough choice that is! I wish there were two of me so I could do both!

  • That mac n cheese looks really good!

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  • This was so delicious! Loved it so much I shared a link to this recipe on facebook.

  • Doubled the recipe except for the nutmeg. I don’t usually cook with nutmeg so I wanted to use half as much on my first try. It turned out delicious but I felt the nutmeg was still too strong so I can only imagine that it would have tasted like nutmeg casserole had I doubled that amount as well. I’m wondering if that was a misprint to use 1/2 tsp. 1/4 tsp would have been more than enough in my doubled recipe. Otherwise, this recipe is a keeper!

  • Laurie: The 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg is indeed correct. But feel free to use less if you prefer. Glad the dish was such a hit.

  • I left out the nutmeg because I am not a fan and apparently I should have left out the dijon mustard too. It was over-powering and I even added extra cheese. Will not make again

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  • I know this is an old post but I have to say I love this recipe. I don’t use nutmeg but I feel like I don’t need it. I’ve been making it for a few years now and my boyfriend and I love it. He always asks for this and he told me before that he never liked homemade Mac & Cheese, only the boxed stuff. This had him changing his tune.

    I started counting calories and sadly thought I had to give this up, but then learned I could use cauliflower in place of pasta. No, cauliflower can never truly replace pasta but it’s a good alternative for the calorie conscious. I usually end up making 2 versions of this, one with pasta and one smaller one with cauliflower. I still end up stealing some of the pasta version though. So if anyone is scared off by calories try it on top of cauliflower.

    Thanks for posting this recipe, it’s wonderful!

  • Shelby: That is the ULTIMATE compliment! I’m so happy to hear your boyfriend is such a fan of this mac ‘n’ cheese. It really is a perfect rendition — cheesy, but not outrageously rich, and yet still full of honest-to-goodness flavor.

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