Southern baked macaroni and cheese, also called soul food mac and cheese, is the ultimate in comfort food. Creamy, rich, ooey-gooey, super cheesy, with those crispy browned cheese edges...no one can resist perfectly baked mac and cheese.
This recipe has been a long time coming.
The black folk mac and cheese. You know, the one with all the memes about how only specific people in the family (usually an Auntie or Grandma) are allowed to make it. A staple in soul food and southern cooking, this mac and cheese goes back generations and is saved for special occasions. Which is why it's here today, on Juneteenth.
For those who don't know, Juneteenth (or Emancipation Day) is a holiday celebrated by Black Americans for the official dying bell of slavery when the Civil War ended, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the last slaves in Galveston, Texas were told they were free in 1865. A whole two years after they were legally freed, but...you know, until the Army came to physically come to tell them they were free, they certainly weren't told by their illegal traffickers and abusers.
Of course, there are a whole lot more slavery problems that were still going on after that, but just like how America celebrates July 4th, we celebrate Juneteenth, the 19th of June, as the official day by feasting, dancing, and merriment, as our ancestors did when they were freed.
And while they probably didn't have mac and cheese back then for their freedom feast, it's a pillar in black cuisine and definitely one in my house. Creamy, rich, ooey-gooey, super cheesy, with those crispy browned cheese edges...no one can resist perfectly baked mac and cheese.
Why is southern baked macaroni and cheese so important to black culture?
For one, black people hold macaroni and cheese in high regard, and it's the pinnacle of black culinary accolades. It's bestowed upon only those who can be trusted with the responsibility of making mac and cheese, because you are not messing up Thanksgiving with bland, overcooked, sad mac and cheese. Our mac and cheese is just as important as any main dish at every holiday it shows up at. Which is every holiday: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, Juneteenth, 4th of July, birthdays, marriages, births, funerals. Everything.
If you bring any type of mac and cheese recipes made from a box or in a store, you will be ragged on and not allowed to bring food again. Possibly exiled from all cookouts, depending on how bad you've disrespected the mac and cheese.
What makes 'black folk' or southern baked macaroni and cheese different?
Southern baked macaroni and cheese is from scratch, period. It's the ultimate in comfort food. There's no roux, there's no stove-top happenings, it's simply southern baked macaroni and cheese. It's amazingly simple in theory, but there are plenty of tiny tweaks that many do to make their mac unique.
Seasoning salt is used sometimes, evaporated milk, the argument of 'eggs vs no eggs' always comes up, but its core is based around very simple and mostly mandatory ingredients. Mind you, everyone will have a different variation, though all are pretty similar besides the number of cheeses and the addition of seasoning salt.
And depending on how easily offended they are, they will argue you down to the kitchen about how their's is superior. It becomes a topic of debate if ever brought up.
Elbow macaroni only
Honestly, I don't think anyone will accept any other pasta shape. It holds the creamy cheese mixture well, and kids are familiar with the shape so they won't say no to it.
At least three cheeses
You will be argued down if you think you can only use cheddar or Velveeta in your mac and cheese. Ask any black woman who is responsible for making the mac and cheese for holidays: mac and cheese is tends to be expensive because there are multiple cheeses used and they vary between families. My mother uses at least six, one including sour cream and chives cream cheese. But this is what makes mac and cheese so good, so add in all the cheese.
It's a dump and bake recipe
Just shred your cheese, stir it with your half and half and milks and creams, season to taste (yes, taste the mixture because you'll end up with bland mac otherwise), add your eggs, stir it all together with the macaroni, and bake in the oven. No roux, no fancy stuff, no stoves, no add-ins. Not even bacon.
Let me tell you, Essence featured my Gentleman Jack Bacon Mac and Cheese on their Instagram and the Black Caucus tore me a new one as if they've never seen bacon in macaroni and cheese before! As I said, mac is serious business in the African American community.
How to make "soul food" or southern baked macaroni and cheese
First, you need to have a lot of love and soul. Got that? Okay.
Next, cook macaroni pasta in well-salted water until just under al dente. It needs to be undercooked so that it doesn't end up mushy and overcooked in the oven.
While your macaroni is cooking, shred your cheese.
In my recipe, there are five kinds of cheese and each has a purpose:
Sharp cheddar cheese for the flavor.
Colby jack as a supporting cheese. It's got great flavor, supporting the cheddar cheese without adding too much 'cheddar' flavor and is a great melting cheese.
Mozzarella for that melty, gooey-cheese-stretch goodness.
American cheese because it is made to melt in a perfectly creamy way and helps the harder cheese like the sharp cheddar melt down and emulsify so it doesn't separate. It's a real mac and cheese work horse!
And cream cheese...'cause my mama uses it. If it ain't broken, don't fix it. It adds more moisture and creaminess to the mac and there are all kinds of flavors you can use. My mom uses sour cream and chive, it's SO good.
In a large bowl, mix in the cheeses, the half-and-half and heavy cream, and your spices. A little mustard powder boosts the cheese flavor, salt and black pepper are a must, garlic and onion powder, and then...smoked paprika!
You can find smoked paprika in any grocery store and its flavor is such a great, smoky addition to the mac and cheese. You will not regret having some smoked paprika in your life.
Rub down an 8x11 or 9x13 baking dish (I used an 8X11 for these photos, but I've used 9x13 plenty of times with no problems) with butter and dump in the macaroni and cheese-milk mixture and mix it up well. Cover it in the rest of the cheddar and Colby jack, then bake for 40 minutes. No, there are no bread crumbs.
I honestly can tell you this is the best macaroni and cheese you will ever make in your life. Which is exactly why it's such a cultural staple.
And no, I will not argue with you about it. I stand on my decision.
More soul food recipes:
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- 16 oz (500 g) elbow macaroni, uncooked
- 8 oz (225 g) sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
- 8 oz (225 g) colby jack cheese, shredded
- 8 oz (225 g) part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 8 oz (225 g) American cheese, cubed
- 4 oz (125 g) cream cheese, cubed and room temperature
- 1 cup (250 ml) half and half
- 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- ½ teaspoon (4g) Smoked paprika (optional)
- 1-2 teaspoon (3g) garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon (3g) onion powder
- ¼ teaspoon (0.5g) mustard powder
- 2 large eggs
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Butter an 8x11 baking dish and set aside.
- Fill a large stockpot or dutch oven halfway with water, add in a large pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Add in elbow macaroni and cook until just under al dente, according to package directions. Do not fully cook or overcook the macaroni pasta, it'll finish cooking through completely in the oven. Once just under al dente, drain the pasta.
- While the pasta boils, use a wooden spoon to mix the half and half, heavy cream, half of the cheddar cheese, half of the Colby jack cheese, all of the mozzarella cheese, all of the American cheese, and all of the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl.
- Add smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, and some kosher salt and pepper, stirring well and tasting the mixture to ensure there is a good flavor. Do not add too much salt, since the cheese is pretty salty and will add its saltiness as it bakes. Once satisfied with the seasoning, mix the eggs in until well incorporated with a wooden spoon.
- Add the drained macaroni pasta and the milk-cheese-egg mixture into your prepared baking dish, stirring to make sure the cheese mixture is well distributed throughout the macaroni.
- Top the macaroni evenly with the rest of the cheddar cheese and colby jack cheese. Sprinkle the top with a little more smoked paprika, if desired.
- Bake the pan for 35 minutes or until the macaroni and cheese is bubbly and the cheese is nicely browned. Do not over-bake or the macaroni pasta will become mushy and the cheese mixture will become dry.
- Let the macaroni and cheese cool for about 10 minutes or until just cool enough to serve. Serve hot so the cheese is nice and creamy.
- Keep wrapped in the fridge for up to 4 days.
Notes for the Best Mac and Cheese
For extra creaminess, use 8 ounces of cream cheese.
You can use whatever cheese you like, (monterey jack, whole milk mozzarella, mild cheddar, extra-sharp cheddar cheese) as long as they aren't hard cheeses like aged gruyere or 1,000 day aged gouda. They tend to separate and not melt easily.
But the less aged versions like red wax gouda, smoked gruyere, are good to go into the mac. Softer cheeses like burrata, brie, camembert, and chevre are also welcome to the party to replace the cream cheese.
Doubling the Recipe
This recipe doubles just fine, only add one more egg and use a (much) larger baking dish, you'll probably need the disposable aluminum ones because it's a LOT of macaroni and cheese. Bake it for an extra 10 minutes as well to ensure the custard gets cooked and that cheese crust gets nice.
Make Ahead Instructions
Readers have put together this baked mac and cheese the day before, baking it the day of, with no problem. Go all the way up to Step 7 and bake the day of.
Storing and Reheating Your Southern Baked Mac and Cheese
Put the mac in airtight containers or keep in the baking dish wrapped in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Reheat a serving in a microwave-safe bowl with a splash of milk to mix in and keep the mac and cheese.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 399Total Fat: 12gSaturated Fat: 6gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 63mgSodium: 651mgCarbohydrates: 40gFiber: 3gSugar: 2gProtein: 32g
Eden Westbrook is the recipe developer, writer, and photographer behind Sweet Tea and Thyme. A classically trained chef, Eden has inspired home cooks into the kitchen with cultural comfort foods, easy family-friendly eats and sweets, and glorious spreads for date night and entertaining since 2015.