Basics: Saucy gluten-free macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a bit of a staple at our house. When I’m not sure what to cook, it’s likely to satisfy.

Figuring out how to make a good gluten-free version was trickier than I expected, thanks to the very different behavior of all the GF pasta I’ve tried when it sits in liquid. It will go a lot mushier than durum wheat pasta, and will sometimes totally lose structural integrity. Most of the homemade macaroni and cheese I got growing up was of the layered baked custard variety, but that really, really does not work well with corn and/or rice pastas unless you want cheesy paste! I have even tried putting the pasta in raw, and the results were something to behold.

So, I’ve been exclusively making a sauced version. Though it takes a few more steps to put together,  the cooking time is a lot shorter than sticking a dish full of cold milk and eggs in the oven–and the results are delicious. If I’m in a hurry, I’ll just put all the cheese in the sauce and mix it with the hot pasta, but I prefer to top it with more cheese and bake it a while. 🙂

The only place I have seen GF elbow macaroni in Greater London was at Totally Swedish, and it’s at least twice the price of supermarket store-brand pasta, plus either a trek from the burbs into Central London or shipping charges. (Yes, there’s enough demand that we do get store-brand here. The average supermarket’s GF selection here didn’t look too bad, until we went in a grocery store when we were visiting Stockholm! Now I have Free From section envy.)

At any rate, if you can’t easily get hold of macaroni, it works well enough with other small pasta shapes. I like to use Dove’s Farm pipe rigate (shells that hold together well), but what we had on had was either rice-and-corn penne or fusilli from Tesco. This fusilli is really bad about falling apart, so I went with the penne.

Plate with a serving of macaroni and cheese beside a piece of baked chicken

It doesn't look like much, but yum!

Saucy GF macaroni and cheese

  • 8 oz. (250g) pasta
  • Salt for pasta water

Sauce:

  • 3 c. (700mL) milk
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • Ground black pepper and cayenne — I used about 1/4 tsp. of pepper and a pinch of cayenne; you can substitute mustard powder for the chile
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch, or about 1 tbsp. potato starch
  • Half an 8 oz. (200-300g) package of cream cheese — blame Paula Deen! 😉
  • 8 oz. (250g) grated cheese — I used a mix of mild Cheddar and sharper Red Leicester, for pretty close to a Colby-Jack effect
  • Optional: 1-2 tbsp. grated Parmegiano or Romano
  • Optional: Sprinkle of paprika on top of the cheese

Start the oven preheating to 350F/180C. Cook the pasta in salted water.  When it’s not quite as done as you would normally like, drain it and rinse it in hot tap water to stop the cooking.  (Often a good idea with GF pastas!)

While that’s cooking, put together the sauce. If you’re using cornstarch, just put all the ingredients but the cheese in a pan together, make sure it’s stirred up well, and keep stirring occasionally while you heat it over low until it thickens.

Cold sauce ingredients in a pan

Just turned on the stove

For potato starch, bring it almost to a boil so that you start seeing small bubbles (a full boil will curdle the milk), then take it off the heat and stir well the whole time you’re gradually pouring in the starch mixed into about 2 tbsp. of water or milk. (That’s a small enough quantity that the water isn’t going to dilute the sauce enough to notice.)

A pan of sauce, almost at a boil

It's almost time to turn off the heat and add the potato starch

When the sauce is thickened, take it off the heat if you haven’t already, and stir in the cream cheese. All I can get here is the spreadable kind in a plastic tub, but if you’re using the more solid kind, you might want to cut it into smallish chunks first. Then add the other cheeses–all the Parmegiano/Romano and about 3/4 of the main cheese–and stir it until the cheese melts in. It doesn’t have to be totally uniform.

A plate of grated cheese, with mixed orange and creamy white colors

A pan of steaming cheese sauce

Good enough!

Taste the sauce for seasoning. Put the pasta in the buttered baking dish, pour on the sauce, and stir it together. Put the lid on the dish so the top won’t dry out, and bake for about 20-25 minutes at 350F/180C.

Pasta and cheese sauce mixed together in a glass baking dish

Ready to go in the oven, covered

When that’s baked, take off the lid. Spread the remaining cheese across the top, and sprinkle it with paprika if you like. Put it back in, uncovered, for another 10 minutes or so until the cheese on top browns a bit.

Finished dish of macaroni and cheese

It's ready! It turned out looking more yellow here.

Let it sit for about 10 minutes out of the oven to cool, et voilà!

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