Macaroni and Cheese with White Sauce is an old-school casserole-style macaroni and cheese, easy enough for a busy weeknight. The recipe is adapted from The Black Family Reunion Cookbook, compiled by the National Council of Negro Women. Despite its Simon and Schuster imprint and classy hardbound printing, The Black Family Reunion Cookbook has the same structure – and intimacy – as any community cookbook. Individual recipes are credited to a virtual who’s who of the African-American community, including prominent entertainers, restaurateurs, and businesspeople. Macaroni and Cheese with White Sauce was shared by three-time Grammy-winning jazz singer Nancy Wilson. It shares a page with a Hash Brown casserole credited to Marla Gibbs. There is, unfortunately, no accompanying anecdote or cultural context for the recipe as there are for others in the same book. It’s hard to tell whether this dish reflects her Midwestern working class upbringing or a comfort food from a star’s kitchen. Macaroni and cheese is funny that way.
I encountered this recipe while searching out side dishes for brisket. I had a vision of a soupy, casserole-style macaroni and cheese but didn’t have a decent recipe in my repertoire. After searching through a couple of old Junior League cookbooks without success, I remembered a weirdly compelling Macaroni and Cheese with Peanuts recipe from The Black Family Reunion Cookbook that I had made previously. I had a surplus of peanuts in the cupboard and fully planned on a repeat preparation when I came across Ms. Wilson’s recipe. The eponymous white sauce fit exactly with my original vision, and used up some beautiful farmer’s market red onions that have been sitting on my counter for weeks. Peanuts have a longer shelf life than onions anyway, so I consider this a win.
The recipe itself is straightforward and requires little in the way of special techniques or preparation. You’ll need to be able to make a good white sauce, which requires making a decent roux, but otherwise it’s just boiling pasta and knowing when your onions are done. Pasta is layered with shredded cheese, and white sauce and sauteed onions are poured over top. The end result is not as soupy as what I’m accustomed to, but the onions add a little more oomph to the final product. With all respect to Ms. Wilson, I made a few adjustments to the recipe to please my family. I used more pasta and cheese than the original recipe called for and used the red onions I had on hand. The original recipe does not specify what type of onions to use, but I’ve come to assume yellow or white onions as default. Red onions lose their distinctive flavor when sauteed, but in the end added some much needed color. I liked it so much that I’ve recommended red onions explicitly in my adaptation.
Making Macaroni and Cheese with White Sauce for my family was a little bit of a gamble. They are accustomed to a much different Macaroni and Cheese recipe that my spouse makes as an entreé. The text accompanying our usual recipe even goes so far as to belittle casserole-style mac n’ cheese and its “insipid white sauce”, but this recipe won my family over anyway. It’s not substantial enough to work as a main dish but was a perfectly matched side for my hickory smoked brisket, along with greens and a Tomato Pudding recipe from the same cookbook. It’s simple enough to work well with chicken fingers or meatloaf as well. Enjoy!
- Preheat oven to 350° F
- Cook elbow macaroni according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
- In a large cast iron skillet melt 1 tbsp butter over medium heat. When butter is melted add onion and sauté until onion is tender and translucent. If onion starts to brown reduce the heat.
- Add remaining 3 tbsp butter to a small saucepan. Melt butter until bubbling, then stir in flour to form a roux. Stir continually until roux is dense and lightly browned, then whisk in milk a little bit at a time to form a thin white sauce. Season as desired with salt and pepper. When the white sauce is thickened stir in the sauteed onions.
- half the pasta, 1/3 of the cheese, the other half of the pasta, 1/3 of the cheese. Then pour the white sauce over top and top with the remaining cheese.
- Bake for 30 minutes until mixture is bubbly and cheese on top is melted but not yet browned. Serve immediately.