Grandma’s Mac and Cheese

My Grandma came to the US after World War II. She intended to work at the Danish Embassy in Washington D.C. for 2-3 years before returning to Denmark. She was going to have a little adventure overseas, then settle down back home. What she didn’t intend on was to be introduced to a soldier who was in D.C. rehabbing from a land mine accident from the war. She certainly didn’t expect that said soldier, who lost his foot back in Germany, to take her dancing, write her poetry, make her jewelry during his stay at the hospital. She didn’t expect him to woo her. But he did. And she married him.

Being that my Grandma was Scandinavian, she was very thrifty and clever in her homemaking sensibilities. Coupled with the fact that my Grandpa grew up during the Depression, they was very frugal, and nothing went to waste.

Now growing up, I was fortunate to be able to spend every other weekend at my Grandma’s house. Once there, we would invariably end up with a crowd of cousins playing games on Saturday night, or at the very least, have Sunday Dinner together.  With 5 children, and (at the time) 9 grandchildren, she was used to feeding a crowd and making ingredients stretch. I learned a lot watching her work.  Her mac & cheese recipe started as a good way to use leftover ham, but quickly became a family staple. It still is.

Over the years, I’ve tried to fancy-schmancy up the ingredients, but something about making it the way Grandma did just feels like home.

I hope you think so, too! You’ll need:

8 oz. small pasta

½ lb. cubed ham

For sauce:

4 Tbs. unsalted butter

3 Tbs. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. kosher salt (to taste)

1 tsp. dry mustard

3 C. milk

1 ½ C. shredded Italian cheese

¾ C. grated parmesan cheese

For the topping:

2 Tbs. butter, melted

¾ C. dry breadcrumbs

¼ C. grated parmesan

Start in the usual way, by preheating the oven to 350 degrees F.

Spray a 2.5 liter casserole dish with olive oil. If you don’t have one, a 13 x 9 baking dish will work just fine.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water, until the pasta is al dente: or soft, but still has a slight “bite” to it. You don’t want it overdone, because it will finish cooking in the oven later. Drain the pasta.

Measure the flour, dry mustard, and salt into some sort of containment vessel. Getting all of your ingredients measured & ready before assembly is called “Mis en Place” or “everything in it’s place.”

If you are ever on a useless trivia show with a million dollars on the line–I am totally your phone-a-friend.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Stir in the flour mixture.

Cook and stir the flour/dry mustard/salt/butter for two minutes. This will help cook off some of the flour-y taste. And it’ll be neat and bubbly.

Pour in the milk, all at once, and whisk until smooth. Stir it up and cook for a few minutes longer, until it begins to thicken slightly.

The sauce will just start to coat the spoon. Now, you might remember a time or two when I harped on politely asked you to grate your own cheese. Because it tastes better, and isn’t sprayed with chemicals to keep it from clumping. Remember? Well forget I said that just this once. OK? Good.

Because Grandma said it was a-O-K to use the pre-shredded Italian cheese blend. But only if you bought it on sale. So we’ll need 1 1/2 cups of Italian cheese. And are you ready for this? You know what else Grandma used in her famous mac & cheese?

Yep. Seriously.

Don’t go being all judge-y here. This grated 100% parmesan in a can was Gram’s secret ingredient. It works here. She only used 3/4 cup in the sauce. I’m sure it was what she had on hand. Fortunately for us–it’s delicious!

Warning: this is not the last you will see of the grated parmesan-in-a-can.

Dump in the cheeses, and stir the sauce until the cheese is melted. Then stir the sauce some more, until it has a chance to thicken up a bit–about 2 more minutes.

Stir the pasta and ham into the cheese sauce until every thing is nicely coated. I like using penne pasta for mac & cheese because the pasta really gets enveloped by the cheese sauce. Who wouldn’t want to be enveloped in cheese sauce, really?

Spoon the mac & cheese & ham mixture into the prepared casserole dish. We’re almost done!

Melt 2 Tbs. butter in a small bowl in the microwave. Add the breadcrumbs. I used Panko style because I like the crunch. Grandma would have made her own.

Pour in 1/4 cup of the grated parmesan-in-a-can. I told you it would be back.

Stir the breadcrumb mixture with a fork until it’s all moist and clumpy.

Spread the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top, and pop it in the oven until the breadcrumbs are toasty brown, and the cheese is bubbly–about 20 minutes.

Sigh! II love the smell of mac & cheese baking in the oven. It smells like having dinner at Grandma’s house every time I make it.

Scoop it into bowls, and serve it to your loved ones. They will love you for it.

Grandma’s Mac & Cheese

Serves 8-10

8 oz. small pasta (elbow macaroni, penne)

½ lb. cubed ham

For sauce:

4 Tbs. unsalted butter

3 Tbs. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. dry mustard

3 C. milk

1 ½ C. shredded Italian cheese (parm, Asiago, fontina—a blend is best)

¾ C. grated parmesan cheese* (Kraft in the green shaker can)

For the topping:

2 Tbs. butter, melted

¾ C. dry breadcrumbs (Panko, if you can find it)

¼ C. grated parmesan* (see above)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a 2.5 liter casserole dish with olive oil; set aside.
  2. Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water, until soft but with a slightly firm bite. (al dente); drain pasta; set aside.

For the sauce:

  1. Melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat.
  2. Stir in the flour, dry mustard, and salt. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
  3. Whisk in the milk, until smooth.  Cook and stir until sauce thickens. (About 5 min.)
  4. Add the Italian cheese, and parmesan to the pan, stirring until cheese melted.
  5. Continue stirring and cook until sauce has thickened.
  6. Mix the cooked pasta and ham into the cheese sauce.
  7. Pour pasta mixture into the prepared dish, and level with a spoon.

For the topping:

10.  Melt 2 Tbs. of butter in a small bowl in the microwave.

11.  Add the breadcrumbs and parmesan to the melted butter, and mix with a fork until combined.

12.  Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture evenly over the pasta mixture.

13.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.

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  1. says

    Ham with mac & cheese is one of my favorite food combinations. It’s perfect comfort food in its purest form. Thanks for sharing your Grandma’s recipe. I’ll be making it soon, and thinking happy thoughts of both of you!

  2. Alice says

    Kirsten, this is a loving a faithful recreation of Mom’s recipe! But to be 100% authentic, it HAS to be elbow mac, she always baked it in the 13×9 Pyrex dish, no Italian cheese in the sauce, just green can parmesan, and there was no parmesan in the topping, just bread crumbs & butter. But, I add my own little twists now, too, (including a “melty” cheese + parm in the sauce) and for my kids & I, it is still an ultimate comfort food dish. MUST be made when there is leftover ham, no question.

    And yes, we always made our own bread crumbs. We kept crusts & stale bread in a pan in the oven (because it was the old gas type with a pilot light) till there was enough to make a batch of crumbs. I kept that up for many years after I was married, because I just thought, that’s what you do!

    Loved this article, sweetie. :)

    • says

      I know that my use of penne was a bit on an embelishment. This is actually Cathie’s rendering of Grandma’s recipe. You know, since Grandma cooked “until it looks right,” and never wrote anything down. I used leftover Christmas ham that Dad chunked & froze for me. Somewhere, Grandma is smiling! :)

      I remember the breadcrumbs in the oven, and keeping the stale bread on a baking sheet on top of the refrigerator until she had enough to make the crumbs. I thought that was just how you did it, too.

  3. says

    Parmesan in a can is such a mysterious foodstuff. We don’t malign it like spray cheese, but we can’t reproduce it with any amount of ease at home. I just love the freshly grated stuff, but when you want True Comfort and Memories, the can is the way to go.

  4. says

    I have beautiful memories from my grandmother and when I make dishes she used to make all those memories come back to me and I can almost feel like I am back them at their house. Beautiful family meal.

  5. Aunt Lesley says

    Kirsten, your version of Mac & Cheese sounds sooo good. Perfect for a cold winter day. I love you dear and hope your holding it together with all those boys. Two were enough for me.


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