The pairing of black pepper and cheddar is one that is longstanding, and for good reason—it’s special! It goes back to the days when I used to come home from school and make myself mac n cheese from the blue box. And always, always was there tons of black pepper cracked into the pot and even more on top for garnish. I used to sit in front of the television so content, watching a half hour or so of TV before it was time to do my homework.
Homework is the one element of school life that I do not miss. Sometimes I wonder if it was really needed, if it made the difference in my education, or if that time after school would’ve been better spent doing more artistic things that would have developed my mind in other ways. Perhaps I’m a little hippie-dippy in my thoughts but I think I would’ve benefited from doing more art as a kid and teenager. And not just tragic arts and crafts for my parent’s fridge, but sculpting, ceramics, painting, dance.
Regardless of what my after school agenda could’ve been, I guessing my love for blue box mac n cheese with lots of black pepper would’ve been the same. This is somewhat of a grown-up version. It uses smoked cheddar, so good! The smokey flavor works wonders with a teeny bit of Dijon mustard, dried thyme and black pepper. The bread crumbs on top give you that needed much needed, super delightful texture. I opted to put them in little cast iron pots for a personal serving size experience, but feel free to transfer it to a baking dish for an old school style. Either way will result in a cheesy, decadent, peppery experience with lots carbs. My favorite!
Smoked Cheddar Black Pepper Mac ‘n Cheese
- 1 pound pasta (Orchechette works well)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon, all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups whole milk
- 8 ounces smoked cheddar, grated (about 4 cups)
- 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more for garnish
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon of salt, or to taste
- 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bring a medium pot full of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until very al dente, per the package’s instructions. Drain and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, set over medium heat, melt the butter. Once melted, stir in the flour and cook for about a minute, until it’s thoroughly incorporated. Pour in the whole milk and whisk until it’s distributed throughout the milk. Keep stirring, scraping the bottom and edges of the pan, for a few minutes until the sauce thickens, being sure not to let it reach a full boil. Once it’s thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, turn off the heat and stir in the smoked cheddar. Add the thyme, black pepper, mustard and mix once more. Add the salt and give it a taste. You may need to add more (this will all depend on how salty the cheese you’re using is). Stir in the drained pasta. Give it one more taste and adjust the salt once more.
- Transfer the mac and cheese to six 4-ounce baking dishes or a large 11x8-inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the panko bread crumbs and a few extra turns of black pepper. Bake for about 15 minutes if you’re using the small baking dishes and 25 minutes for a larger baking dish. If there’s not enough color on top, don’t be shy to throw it under the broiler for about 2 to 3 minutes until toasty and golden brown. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Adrianna Adarme is a food blogger and author living in Los Angeles, California. She writes the blog A Cozy Kitchen, where she shares comforting, everyday recipes from her kitchen. She recently authored her first cookbook, PANCAKES: 72 Sweet and Savory Recipes for the Perfect Stack. She’s a lover of breakfast, pie (and sometimes even pie for breakfast), corgis and cute things. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.