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Mac and cheese -- make ahead? How long?

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I'm making some individual mac and cheeses in small ramekins as part of dinner tomorrow and am trying to figure out how far in advance I can prep them. As I see it, my options are:

1) Prep the recipe, put the mac and cheese in the ramekins and hold it in the fridge for a few hours until I'm ready to bake them.

Question: will the pasta suffer from being mixed into a hot sauce, then chilled, then baked?

2) Prep the bechamel and cheese sauce and hold that on the stove or in the fridge until close to dinner time and then reheat the sauce and finish the recipe.

Question: will the cheese sauce reheat well or will it break?

The reason I'm trying to do it ahead is that I've got about 10 other things I'll be trying to finish right before dinner and I'd like to get as much done in advance as possible.

Suggestions appreciated!

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  1. I'd go with option #1 but let the bechamel cool off slightly before mixing in the mac & add a little extra milk or cream to the sauce as once it cools off, it's going to tighten a bit so if you want the dish to still be creamy, add a little extra.

    You could also make the sauce ahead and reheat; I've done it before to successful results.

    1. Question 1: Yes, the pasta will suffer a lot from being made ahead and chilled, then reheated. The pasta will absorb tons of moisture from the sauce and turn flabby. You can sort of disguise it by adding more liquid on reheating, but the pasta will never be the same. Think of canned pasta, or even one of the better (a relative term) frozen macaroni and cheese dishes.

      I'd try option 2, with keeping the sauce warm (maybe try a slow cooker?) until you're ready to go. Cooling and rewarming bechamel with cheese, AKA Mornay, is a recipe for curdling, unless you have time to do it very slowly, preferably in a double boiler. Would you have time to make the sauce ahead and prep your cheese, then keep the sauce warm and mix the cheese into it, then your pasta, and then into the baking dishes?

      This just isn't a very good make-ahead dish, especially for company. I don't mind rewarming my leftover macaroni and cheese in a skillet with a little butter, or even in the microwave, but I don't think it tastes anything like fresh when I do.

      1. I have to disagree; if you're only holding the dish for a few hours, your pasta will be fine. I make ahead mac & cheese all the time for catering and have never had a problem with it. The only time you'll have flabby pasta is if you overcook the pasta to begin with.

        I don't suggest assembling it a day ahead, however, I have seen Ina Garten do a make ahead mac & cheese dish that looked great once cooked (I'm going to have to try that recipe)

        3 Replies
        1. re: Cherylptw

          Oh, that's good to hear. Thanks everyone. I think I'll mix a bit of each of your recs -- I'll undercook the pasta a bit more than usual, add a bit of extra cream to the sauce ('cause really, there's not such thing as too much cream) and let it cool a bit before mixing in the pasta.

          Cheers and thanks for saving my sanity.

          1. re: Cherylptw

            It'll definitely be edible if you reheat it and add moisture -- but it won't be the same as fresh. Just to be clear: I rewarm pasta all the time. But its texture changes completely, and it just wouldn't be something I'd choose to serve to guests.

            In that case, though, I'd prepare the ramekins, rewarm most of the way in the microwave under medium-high power, then top with something crunchy and finish for 10 or 15 minutes in the oven. And always keep in mind that if you get it too hot, the sauce will separate.

            But I still maintain it won't really be anything like fresh from the oven. Pasta changes fundamentally after cooling in sauce.

            1. re: dmd_kc

              When I make it ahead, I don't bake it until I'm going to serve it. It definitely loses a lot in translation when reheated.

          2. I've repeatedly made it as much as a day ahead, though usually just a matter of hours. I always undercook pasta for any baked dish, including this one, don't mix it with the sauce til the sauce has cooled a bit, and store in the fridge immediately. This has worked very well with both Ruth Reichl's and the old Ronzoni mac and cheese recipes.

            1. Make it all ahead of time in a corning type dish. Prior to dinner portion it in the ramikins and warm it up, add a bit of butter to each ramikin and a splash of cream or milk.

              1. Just reporting back. I followed the plan of making the sauce with extra milk and cream, letting it cool then mixing in the undercooked pasta and portioning it into the ramekins. I held the ramekins at room temp for about 3 hours, then baked them when my guests arrived. It worked out just fine. The sauce wasn't as creamy as usual, but the pasta was fine -- it didn't taste "reheated". Thanks again!