Classic Comfort

Two Ohio chefs share their macaroni and cheese recipes.

Few people can argue with macaroni and cheese’s ultimate comfort-food appeal, especially in winter. And while it’s easy to rip open a box of the processed stuff, spending a little extra time on a fresh, steaming-hot serving is a special treat on cold days.

In fact, there’s not much you can’t do with mac and cheese: Prepare it right, and you have a meal representing the entire food pyramid. Toss in a handful of peas or broccoli to add a serving of veggies, or add prepared chicken, ham or ground beef for some extra protein. (See below for additional ideas.)

Or take a cue from Rocco Whalen, executive chef of Fahrenheit (, a popular dining spot in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, and class it up with some lobster.

Chef Whalen’s inspiration comes from his time spent in Arizona working with Wolfgang Puck, who incorporated seafood into dishes like pizza and pasta. Clevelanders familiar with Whalen’s work at Blue Point Grille, where he created an Asian-inspired seafood menu, and his current venture, the 10-year-old Fahrenheit — which incorporates local and seasonal ingredients into an ever-changing menu of contemporary American cuisine — can attest to his culinary skills. His recipe for lobster mac and cheese is a great way to dress up an old favorite.

“The goat cheese and lobster give it a twist with a rich, earthy flavor,” says Whalen.

Cincinnati-based culinary expert Marilyn Harris likes to infuse fresh herbs into the sauce for a brighter flavor. Harris — whose 40-plus-year career includes authoring three cookbooks, countless food columns for the Cincinnati Enquirer, teaching cooking classes and hosting her weekly radio show, “Cooking With Marilyn,” every Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. on 55KRC ( — is known by locals for her easy recipes that produce fine-dining flavor.

“Mac and cheese is usually so heavy, and just by infusing the milk with some fresh thyme and some fresh parsley and a little bit of onion and black peppercorns, it gives it a flavor base that makes it more interesting and more complex,” she says.

But don’t take our word for it: Try these recipes to make restaurant-quality mac and cheese at home.


No time to make mac and cheese from scratch? No problem.

Prepare your favorite boxed or frozen version (don’t worry, we won’t tell) and put some toppings out in bowls, buffet-style, allowing each person to create his or her own dish. It’s perfect for a casual dinner party and will appeal to everyone, from vegetarians to picky young eaters.

For inspiration, we turned to Keystone Bar & Grill (, with locations in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood and in Covington, Kentucky, which has an entire menu devoted to mac and cheese. According to Jennifer Macht, general manager of the Covington location, of the 11 items offered on the menu, the two most popular combinations are barbecue chicken and bacon or buffalo chicken and blue cheese.

But don’t stop there: Other popular blends on the menu are spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, steak and mushrooms, bacon and caramelized onion, fresh mozzarella, pesto and tomatoes, and a dish that includes a little bit of everything: buffalo chicken, steak, jalapenos, crumbled bleu cheese and potato chips.

Get creative and use leftovers, frozen foods or jarred ingredients, like pulled pork, ground beef, ham, sausage, chili, onion rings, corn, spinach, roasted peppers, poblanos, wild mushrooms and even olives and capers.

Spread out a selection of hot sauces and some unique seasonings — smoked paprika, nutmeg and ground mustard all add interesting flavor — and grated gourmet cheeses for those who prefer a richer, creamier dish. To finish, chop some fresh parsley, cilantro and basil or any fresh herbs for garnishing.


Marilyn's Mac and Cheese
Courtesy of Marilyn Harris | Serves 8

3 cups milk (either whole or 2 percent)
1 small onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs parsley
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
3 cups shredded Gruyere cheese (Comte is best), divided
1 cup shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
8 ounces elbow macaroni, cooked according to package directions, drained

Pour the milk into a nonreactive saucepan. Add the onion, bay leaf, parsley, thyme and peppercorns and heat on stovetop until scalded. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 30 minutes to infuse the flavors into the milk. Strain and return the milk to the pan. Reheat.

In a heavy pan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Do not allow to brown. Pour in the hot milk and whisk until the mixture bubbles and thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in 2 cups of the Gruyere and the Parmigiano-Reggiano, stirring until the cheeses melt. Season with salt, mustard and Tabasco. Fold in the macaroni. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour macaroni mixture into a buttered 1-1/2-to-2-quart baking dish. Top with the remaining cup of Gruyere. Bake in the center rack for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bubbly.

Lobster Macaroni and Cheese
Courtesy of Rocco Whalen | Serves 4–6

3 6-ounce lobster tails, precooked or raw (save shells for sauce)
2 tablespoons oil
1 stalk celery, chopped
1/4 cup yellow onion, diced
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tomato paste
2 ounces brandy
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon paprika
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 quart heavy cream
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup Brie
1/4 cup Parmesan
1/4 cup goat cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound rigatoni, cooked according to package directions, drained
Sun-dried tomatoes and chives for garnish

If using raw lobster tails, bake at 350 degrees for 20–25 minutes or until opaque. Once cool, chop meat and reserve shells.

For the sauce:
Heat oil in a large pan, add celery and onion and sauté for 2 minutes. Add salt and tomato paste until it caramelizes (about 2–3 minutes), deglaze with brandy. Add paprika, cayenne, cream, water and lobster shells. Let simmer for at least 30 minutes. Strain out shells and add Brie, Parmesan and goat cheese and simmer until thick, stirring occasionally. Add lobster meat to sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour sauce over pasta, garnish with sun-dried tomatoes and chives.