A Brilliant Trick for Better Mac & Cheese

There are some clever vegan pasta recipes out there that approximate cheese sauces by way of blending nutritional yeast, miso, paprika, and probably a pinch of voodoo magic.

This is not one of those recipes. If you aren’t planning on diving face-first into a gooey bowl of pasta, butter, and extra cheese, I suggest you politely look away.

(Photo: Posie Harwood/Food52)

See, unless you live in a far-flung place and haven’t checked the internet lately, you know we’ve had some serious weather on the East Coast. All this ice and swirling snow has me craving warm, comforting food.

I set out to make a simple baked macaroni and cheese, using the Mueller’s back-of-the-box recipe as a guide. I applied a few well-known tricks to improve upon it: choosing butter instead of margarine, slightly warming the milk for the béchamel, and initially cooking the pasta a few minutes shy of al dente.

(Photo: James Ransom/Food52)

While pulling out my pasta ingredients from the refrigerator, I spied my lonely jar of miso paste tucked in the back corner. Ever on the hunt for ways to use up miso, I wondered if I could try adding it to my pasta.

A quick internet search yielded very little on the pairing of miso and cheese. As experimentation is the best route to discovery, I tried it. And am I ever so glad that I did!

(Photo: Posie Harwood/Food52)

Japanese food traditionally doesn’t use much dairy, so it’s not surprising that miso and cheese isn’t a natural combination. But consider the savory, umami-heavy, salty qualities of both: It makes sense that they amplify and intensify each other wonderfully.

If we use miso in place of cheese to add a rich complexity to vegan dishes, why not use it in addition to cheese and really go all out?

(Photo: Posie Harwood/Food52)

When you make this pasta, you’ll stir the miso paste into your béchamel sauce along with the cheese. The recipe calls for ¼ cup of miso paste, but I suggest that you start with 2 tablespoons and taste the sauce. See how you like it: I found I preferred a more pronounced miso flavor, but you might prefer it on the subtler side.

Now go start cooking! I’ll just sit here and dream up the menu for my forthcoming miso and cheese-themed restaurant.

Serves 6 (or 4 hungry people)

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to boil. Add your pasta and cook until a minute or two shy of al dente (do not cook it all the way to al dente!). Drain (don’t rinse) and set aside.
  3. In a large pan, heat the butter until it melts. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly to break up any clumps, for a minute or two.
  4. Whisk in the warm milk and bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.
  5. Remove from the heat and stir in 2 cups of the cheese, salt, pepper, and miso paste. (N.B.: Start with just two tablespoons of the miso paste, and taste. Add more as you like but it’s important to taste and decide what you like!)
  6. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to coat.
  7. Pour the pasta into a greased baking dish (big enough to hold your pasta—a 9- by 13-inch dish works, or a 2-quart or 3-quart dish) and sprinkle the top with the remaining ¼ cup cheese and the panko.
  8. Bake the pasta for about 25 minutes. The pasta should be bubbling and the breadcrumbs should be browned.
  9. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly, and serve.

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