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I love mac and cheese. Growing up, it was the meal I requested the most as a kid—despite what time of day it was. Kraft was just fine in my book, Velveeta too, and I wouldn't even deny Stouffer's if given the opportunity. I mean, who doesn't love mac and cheese??
But once you have a bite of homemade mac, there's no going back to boxed and after stumbling upon Ina Garten's mac and cheese recipe, I knew hers had to be up there with some of the best in class. I've already made her summer garden pasta and weeknight bolognese, but I had not yet attempted Ina's macaroni and cheese.
One look and I knew this had to be a winner. Elbow macaroni smothered in a cheesy sauce that's baked to golden crispy perfection with sliced tomatoes on top. In the words of the Barefoot Contessa herself: "How bad could that be?"
Here's what happened when I went into the kitchen to recreate it.
Get the recipe: Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese
What You Need to Make Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese
As to be expected, Ina's ingredient list is quite straightforward for mac and cheese. It's a mix of pantry staples like flour, elbow macaroni, breadcrumbs (though I swapped these for the panko I had on hand), plus a little ground nutmeg. You'll also need a quart of milk, a stick of butter, two types of cheeses (Ina likes a blend of Gruyère and extra-sharp cheddar) and 4 small tomatoes.
This was the only ingredient that threw me TBH. I haven't had that many mac and cheeses with tomatoes on top, but whatever you do—do not skip this crucial ingredient. The tomatoes truly make the dish (more on that later). You'll also need vegetable oil, salt and pepper.
How to Make Ina Garten's Mac and Cheese
To make Ina's out-of-this-world mac and cheese, you'll preheat your oven to 375 degrees, then gather the largest three pots and pans you own, along with a 3-quart baking dish or a disposable baking pan, like I did. Let me forewarn you: "This is mac and cheese for a crowd," as the Barefoot Contessa puts it, and easily serves 8 to 10 people.
Next, you'll grate your Gruyère and Cheddar cheeses. Trust me—you want to get this step out of the way as soon as possible. While watching a video of Ina making her famous mac and cheese I saw her whip out her food processor for easy grating and I really wish I would have made the same move since this is arguably the most labor-intensive task in the recipe. Grating two whole blocks of cheese by hand takes a while. At least I got my arm workout for the day.
When you're done grating, cook the pasta. (If you're a multi-tasker you could get the water boiling and put the pasta in while you grate the cheese.) Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, add a drizzle of olive oil, then your box of elbow macaroni and cook until it's just under al dente—about 5-6 minutes. It's ok if the pasta is slightly undercooked at this stage. You'll be baking the dish later, so the pasta will finish cooking in the oven.
While your pasta is boiling, get started on the cheese sauce. Ina makes everything seem easy, including making béchamel sauce, which I've always been too terrified to attempt before this recipe. It's simple enough, though: Heat 1 quart of milk in a saucepan, but be careful not to boil it (you just want it warm). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in another pot (the largest of the three), along with 1/2 cup of flour. Whisk the flour and butter slowly for a few minutes, then slowly whisk in the warm milk and add a dash of ground nutmeg along with salt and pepper.
You'll continue whisking until your béchamel is smooth and thick, then off the heat, gradually stir in all off that cheese. Once the cheese goes in, the béchamel becomes a Mornay sauce, which is just béchamel sauce plus cheese.
Stir the cooked pasta into the sauce, then scrap the mac and cheese into your baking dish. Once that's settled, make the buttery crumb topping. Melt some butter in a saucepan or the microwave, then stir in your breadcrumbs. Slice your tomatoes and you're ready to assemble.
Arrange the tomatoes on top of the mac and cheese, generously sprinkle the crumbs all over the top, then pop the dish into the oven and bake it until it's nice and crispy on top. Mine took 25-30 minutes, but the timing will vary a bit depending on your oven. Once it's bubbling around the edges and golden brown in spots, you know it's ready.
What I Thought of Ina's Mac and Cheese
Honestly, I'll never go back to boxed mac and cheese. Where has this recipe been all my life?! As a mac and cheese connoisseur, I can honestly say this is one of the best homemade versions I've ever had—and I've tried many options, including boxed, frozen and restaurant-made.
It's cheesy, creamy, crunchy and hits every kind of culinary high note you want from the world's greatest comfort food dish. Also, the tomatoes, Ina?? Brilliant. It's a game-changing ingredient I didn't know I would love so much. When I went to heat up leftovers the next day (which, BTW were even better), I went straight for the parts with the little red slices. They add a slightly sweet flavor to the salty baked pasta that's so so good.
Related: 5 Best Ina Garten Desserts, Ranked
Tips for Making Ina's Mac and Cheese
1. Choose smaller tomatoes. You want to skip the heirlooms and the big reds for this recipe. Smaller tomatoes work best here.
2. Undercook your pasta. Ina's recipe says to cook the elbows according to the box directions, but since you are technically double-cooking the noodles, take them out before they reach al dente so they aren't mushy after you bake them.
3. Make two batches. You should seriously consider making a double batch—one to eat now and one to freeze for later. For the freezer version, mix up the mac and cheese and put it in the pan, let it cool, then wrap it tightly and stick it in the freezer. When you're ready to bake it, let it warm up a bit, top it with the tomatoes and breadcrumbs and stick it in the oven.