It’s the ultimate comfort food. Butter, carbs, cheese, it’s sort of hard to go wrong with such a fantastic combination, but there’s a science to making a successful mac and cheese. I’ve only just begun a long and exciting journey towards perfection of this pillar of homestyle American cooking, but, I must confess, I cheated.

My grandfather has been a mac and cheese enthusiast for lifetimes longer than I have. “Papa’s making mac and cheese!” was an often repeated exclamation in my house and remains a cause for celebration. His recipe toes the line between gourmet and homey in just the way you hope it will, and for me sets the bar by which all others are judged.

When I first called him for the recipe he gave me amounts like “a little flour” and “a bunch of cheese.” Maybe the fact that I’m his descendent allows us to communicate in this way. Now these approximations are, in all fairness, the way he (and I in his footsteps) cooks, but a recipe they do not make. So I’ll try to quantify these measurements while still preserving the freeform spirit of the recipe, forgive me Papa.

Papa’s Mac and Cheese
1 hour, serves ~6

1. Cook 1.5 pounds penne, rigatoni, or other smallish tubular pasta until fully cooked but firm. Before draining reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.

2. Melt 2T butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, when fully melted add 1T flour and stir until the flour is incorporated and the texture is smooth. You now have a roux.

3. Gradually add 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring after each addition until the mixture is smooth and even.

4. Add, a handful at a time, 1 pound of shredded sharp cheddar (or more if you want it really cheesy), again stirring after each addition. While you’re waiting for the cheese to melt add some seasonings (mustard, salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg are pretty standard).

5. Once fully melted, combine the sauce with the pasta and mix until each piece is coated. Butter a large (13”x9” or so) baking dish and pour the pasta/cheese picture into the pan, spread it out to fill. Pour 1/2 cup or more of the reserved pasta water over the entire operation, depending on how moist it looks.

6. Top with breadcrumbs and/or more shredded cheese, bake at 400 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy. Let it sit for at least 10-15 minutes before serving.