Thomas Keller’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese

Thomas Keller’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese
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thomas keller's mac 'n' cheese
Better than mac ‘n’ cheese!

Everyone likes macaroni and cheese, right? It seems to be the very definition of comfort food, always perfect for those days when you just want to relax and enjoy eating without a care in the world. To us, we just can’t imagine that macaroni and cheese could be improved. But, that lack of imagination shows why we aren’t world famous chefs like Thomas Keller. He’s taken macaroni and cheese to the next level.

Over the years, we’ve tried a number of recipes by Thomas Keller, and almost all have been exceptional: the best of the best, so to speak. These are recipes that you’ll make time and again, and will break out whenever you want food that will make people swoon. So, we wondered, “what would Thomas Keller do with something as simple and homespun as macaroni and cheese?”

A quick search of the Internet revealed an answer (he also has a macaroni gratin recipe out there that we want to try) on the Honest Cooking site, and now it’s available to all Scratchin’ It fans. We will tell you that we hadn’t planned this dinner in advance, so we lacked a few things, but we substituted appropriately. We’ll describe the substitutions below.

Thomas Keller’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese

Yield: 4 servings

Thomas Keller’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese


  • 1/2 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
  • 1 Tbs canola oil
  • 8 ounces orzo
  • 1/4 cup yellow onion, very finely minced
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups light stock
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter, optional
  • 3 Tbs crème fraîche or homemade sour cream
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups (6 to 8 ounces) finely grated white Cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp minced chives
  • 1 tsp minced flat-leaved parsley

Abbreviated Instructions

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add bread crumbs and toast, stirring continuously, until golden brown, 5-7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add orzo, and toast, stirring often, until about half the orzo is golden, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Stir in onion until the mixture is no longer steaming and any liquid has been absorbed.

Add 3/4 cup stock and return to heat. Stir until almost all the liquid is absorbed and the path of a spoon dragged along the bottom does not fill in, about 7 minutes. Add an additional 3/4 cup of broth along with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring until almost all liquid is absorbed, another 7 minutes.

Add milk, and continue cooking, stirring continuously, until pasta is done to your liking, but do not let it get mushy, and the sauce is thick and creamy, annother 7 to 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in butter, if using, crème fraîche, 1 1/2 cups cheese, and herbs. Taste and add additional cheese and salt, if needed.

Dish into soup plates and sprinkle with toasted bread crumbs.

Ingredient discussion:

We’ve never had Panko bread crumbs in the house. We generally just make our own, and that’s what we used here. We debated about going through the trouble of toasting the bread crumbs and are so glad we did. It makes a difference. For the finely minced onion, we knew it should be very finely minced, and our knife skills do not match those of Chef Keller. We used a microplane. The original recipe specified crème fraîche, and, normally, we’d have made its equivalent, homemade sour cream, but didn’t have time. Finally, no chives or flat-leaved parsley, but we do have a few bunching onions growing so we snipped off a bit of the green leaves, and we used dried chervil in place of the parsley.

Oh, the stock: the original recipe called for low-sodium chicken stock, but we used our homemade vegetable stock in its place.

Procedure in detail:

toasting bread crumbs
We almost skipped the step of toasting the bread crumbs in butter; we’re glad we didn’t.

Toast bread crumbs. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat. When foamy, about a minute or two, add the bread crumbs and start stirring. Continue cooking and stirring until the crumbs turn a nice golden brown. Too long and you’ll burn the bread, so watch them. Immediately transfer to a bowl to stop the toasting and allow them to cool. Set aside until ready to serve.

toatsing pasta
Toasting the orzo helps bring out more flavors, making the mac ‘n’ cheese even better.

Toast orzo. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the orzo and toast, stirring often, until about half of the orzo is golden brown. This should take about 2-3 minutes, and the pasta should smell toasty. Remove from heat.

Add onion. Stir in the onion. At first it’ll spatter and steam, so be careful. Continue stirring off the heat until no more steam is released and any liquid released by the onions is absorbed, less than a minute.

adding broth
Cook the pasta just as you’d cook risotto, adding stock a bit at a time and stirring until it’s absorbed.

Add broth. Stir in 3/4 cup of broth and return the pan to medium heat. If you’ve made risotto, you’ll know what to do. Start stirring and continue stirring until the stock is almost completely absorbed. Not so long that the orzo sticks, but long enough that when you drag a spoon through the orzo, it doesn’t fill in with liquid.

testin for liquid absorbtion
Dragging the spoon along the bottom of the pan is a good test to see if enough liquid has been absorbed.

Add more broth. Just as in making risotto, add another 3/4 cup of broth, along with a pinch of salt, and repeat the stirring and cooking until almost all liquid is absorbed. At this time the pasta will still be underdone; not to worry, though, you’re not finished stirring, either.

adding milk
Add the milk and cook until thick and creamy.

Add milk. Stir in the milk, and, just as with the stock, continue cooking and stirring until the sauce is thick and creamy. At this time the orzo should be perfectly cooked. Soft on the outside with a slightly firm center. If not, you can add another 1/4 cup of stock and continue cooking to your liking. Don’t let the pasta get mushy, because no one likes mushy pasta. Remove from heat.

adding cheese
You can’t have mac ‘n’ cheese without cheese. We like to use an aged Cheddar.

Add crème fraîche and cheese. If you’re using butter, stir it in. Stirring in butter is often done with risotto to thicken the sauce slightly to make for a smoother mouth feel. We didn’t use butter this time, but, perhaps we will next time. Once the butter melts, stir in the crème fraîche, 1 1/2 cups of cheese, and the herbs. If needed, pop a cover on the pan for 5 minutes to help melt the cheese and stir again until smooth and creamy.

Taste and adjust. Taste, and, if needed, add more cheese and a bit of salt. Add a bit more stock if you need to loosen up the sauce to make it creamy.

Serve. Scoop into bowls or ramekins — we used soup plates, just as we’d use for risotto — and top with the toasted bread crumbs. They’ll warm perfectly while you bring the dishes to the table.

Wow! This is even better than mac ‘n’ cheese! Really. It’s creamy, cheesy, nice and flavorful, with a toasted crumb topping that makes it seem as if it were finished under the broiler. We really liked the way the orzo, when cooked in the manner of risotto, makes such a creamy sauce. Using the stock and toasting the pasta makes for a more complex flavor, so it’s not as if all you’re tasting is cheese (a common failing in some mac ‘n’ cheese), and it’s really easy to make, possibly even easier than the baked version. Five stars, without reservations.

Worth the trouble?

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