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School Cafeteria Mac and Cheese (A Lunch Lady Throwback)

This cafeteria mac and cheese is great as a main dish or as a side. What begins of this classic dish on the stove top, finishes in a casserole dish in the oven, creamy ribbons of savory sauce blanketing every al dente noodle and bubbling up into delicious seasoned bread crumbs.

Grammar school lunches were soooo good in my day! I mean, I don’t know if students still look forward to pizza day or hamburger day the way I did, but it would take a lot to beat what we were served in the late 1970s, early 1980s, especially school cafeteria mac and cheese.

Our lunch ladies were the absolute best and I still associate them with the hypnotic aromas that emanated from our elementary school’s basement cafeteria and up to our first and second floor classrooms mid-morning. Those women darn near killed me with anticipation!

cafeteria mac and cheese served in a casserole dish

The recipe I am sharing for lunch lady mac and cheese was given to my mom by a classroom aide back in 1976. The aide liked the school’s macaroni and cheese recipe enough apparently and asked one of the cafeteria women for it. I have always felt lucky to have it, so I have finally decided to share!

For this method, you will need two different types of cheese, both sharp cheddar cheese as well as a little bit of American cheese. Combined along with a can of evaporated milk evolves the most amazing, cheesiest sauce anywhere!

Ingredients for Lunch Lady Mac and Cheese

  • elbow macaroni
  • Kosher salt
  • olive oil
  • unsalted butter
  • evaporated canned milk
  • water
  • cornstarch
  • garlic powder
  • onion powder
  • black pepper
  • sharp cheddar, may be white cheddar or yellow cheddar
  • deli American, not processed, pre-wrapped slices
  • Italian breadcrumbs

Optional

  • freshly grated Parmesan to be combined with breadcrumb mixture
a white casserole dish with mac and cheese and bowls of stewed tomatoes

How to Make Cafeteria Macaroni and Cheese

Before You Begin, A Little Something About Cheese

What sets homemade mac recipes apart from the boxed stuff is the ‘real deal’ dairy sauce. Take the time to grate your cheddar and the American from large blocks.

American is found at your grocers deli counter. I request a 4 ounce hunk of the stuff which gives me a little more than half a cup.

For the cheddar, you will need 1 1/2-cups. I specify sharp but if you prefer a mild cheddar by all means use that.

And it’s okay if you are over by a bit on either. You will be happier by way of the end result by using the real thing, pinky swear!

For the Breadcrumb Topping

Preheat your oven to 350°F and butter a 1-quart casserole dish with a tablespoon of softened butter. Set aside.

Melt 3 more tablespoons of butter together with 1/4-teaspoon of Kosher salt. Once foamy, remove from the heat and stir. Allow to cool slightly.

Toss with 1/2-cup of Italian breadcrumbs. Allow to cool completely. This will become the crunchy topping.

Cook the Macaroni Noodles

Measure out 2-cups of dry elbow macaroni. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and to it, add a teaspoon of olive oil and the pasta. Cook according to the package directions LESS 2 minutes.

Drain the noodles, return them to the pot along with another tablespoon of butter, toss, and set aside. Between the butter and the oil used to cook the noodles, there is no need to sweat the noodles sticking.

For the Sauce

To a cold Dutch oven, whisk together the cornstarch, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper. Add a full can of evaporated milk, 1-cup of water, and the remaining two tablespoons of butter.

Stirring constantly, turn the heat on medium-high and heat until the mixture comes to a boil. After a minute the cornstarch will begin to thicken the mixture, your cue to remove the Dutch oven from the heat.

Sprinkle in the shredded cheeses and stir until both are mostly melted. Season to taste before adding in the cooked macaroni. Stir the slightly undercooked noodles into the sauce to ensure each piece is well coated

Bake the Casserole

Pour the macaroni into the prepared baking dish, using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to scrape all of the decadent sauce atop the noodles. Sprinkle the top of the casserole with the breadcrumb mixture and place into the preheated oven.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just bubbling. If you want the top golden brown and the bake time has not achieved the color you desire, broil the bake for 1 to 2 minutes. Monitor it so it does not burn because it will burn quite quickly due to the use of butter in the breadcrumb mixture.

Modifying the Norm to Make It Not Entirely Average

  • Substitute crushed corn flakes for the breadcrumb topping in equal measure for a super crunchy top layer.
  • Shave or grate some parmesan (about a quarter cup) into the topping mixture before sprinkling it over the casserole for extra cheesy goodness!
  • Change up your dairy game and think Monterey Jack, Gouda, or Havarti instead! There are no real rules when it comes to cheese, especially if you’ve got some picky eaters who only eat certain varieties.
featured image for School Cafeteria Mac and Cheese

School Cafeteria Mac and Cheese (A Lunch Lady Throwback)

Jenny from Not Entirely Average
This cafeteria mac and cheese is great as a main dish or as a side. What begins of this classic dish on the stove top, finishes in a casserole dish in the oven, creamy ribbons of savory sauce blanketing every al dente noodle and bubbling up into deliciously seasoned bread crumbs.
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Servings: 6 servings
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Total Time 40 mins
Course Main Course, Side Dish
Cuisine American, Southern
Servings 6 servings
Calories 514 kcal

Equipment

  • Dutch oven
  • 1-quart casserole

Ingredients
 

  • 2 cups dry elbow noodles
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt divided
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 7 tablespoons unsalted butter divided; softened to room temperature
  • 1 (12-ounce can) evaporated milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons corn starch pressed through a fine mesh sieve to eliminate lumps
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar freshly shredded from a large block
  • 1/2 cup deli American freshly shredded from a large block; not processed, pre-wrapped slices
  • 1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs

optional

  • 1/4 cup Parmesan freshly grated from a large block and combined with breadcrumb mixture before baking

Instructions
 

  • Preheat your oven to 350°F and butter a 1-quart casserole dish with one tablespoon of the butter. Set aside.
  • Melt 3 more tablespoons of the butter together with 1/4-teaspoon of Kosher salt. Once foamy, remove from the heat and stir. Allow to cool slightly. Toss with 1/2-cup of Italian breadcrumbs. Allow to cool completely. If using Parmesan in the topping, toss with breadcrumbs once cooled. Set aside.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil and to it the remaining teaspoon of Kosher salt and the olive oil. Add the pasta. Cook according to the package directions LESS 2 minutes. Drain the noodles, return them to the pot along with another tablespoon of butter, toss, and set aside.
  • To a cold Dutch oven, whisk together the cornstarch, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and black pepper. Add a full can of evaporated milk, the water, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Stirring constantly, turn the heat on medium-high and heat until the mixture comes to a boil. When the mixture just begins to thicken, remove the Dutch oven from the heat.
  • Sprinkle in the shredded cheeses and stir until both are mostly melted. Season to taste before adding in the cooked macaroni. Stir the slightly undercooked noodles into the sauce to ensure each piece is well coated
  • Pour the macaroni into the prepared baking dish and use a rubber spatula to scrape any remaining sauce atop the macaroni. Sprinkle the top of the casserole with the breadcrumb mixture and place into the preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until just bubbling. If you want the top golden brown and the bake time has not achieved the color you desire, broil the bake for 1 to 2 minutes. Monitor it so it does not burn because it will burn quite quickly due to the use of butter in the breadcrumb mixture.

Notes

Please Note that table salt and iodized salt are NOT substitutions for Kosher salt. Do not use table salt or iodized salt in any of the recipes you find on Not Entirely Average UNLESS specified otherwise.
Make Ahead up to two days. Assemble the casserole as specified but do not add the breadcrumb mixture and do not bake. Cover with foil and refrigerate until ready to bake. Continue with the recipe as indicated, stirring in a couple of tablespoons whole milk if the noodles seem too dry. ProTip: remove the casserole from refrigeration 30 minutes prior to baking. 
Store Leftovers up to 3 days by loading into an airtight container and refrigerating. To Reheat stir in a tablespoon or two of whole milk and microwave, stirring every 20 seconds until warmed through. To Freeze load into a freezer-safe container and freeze up to 3 months. To Thaw, place in refrigerator overnight.
Substitutions and Modifications:
    • Substitute crushed corn flakes for the breadcrumb topping in equal measure for a super crunchy top layer.
    • Shave some parmesan (about a quarter cup) into the topping mixture before sprinkling it over the casserole for extra cheesy goodness!
    • Change up your dairy game and think Monterey Jack, Gouda, or Havarti in lieu of cheddar or American.

Nutrition

Serving: 1servingCalories: 514kcalCarbohydrates: 45gProtein: 18gFat: 29gSaturated Fat: 17gPolyunsaturated Fat: 2gMonounsaturated Fat: 7gTrans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 76mgSodium: 938mgPotassium: 171mgFiber: 2gSugar: 2gVitamin A: 839IUVitamin C: 0.3mgCalcium: 351mgIron: 1mg
Keyword cheese, creamy mac and cheese, Creamy pasta, dinner
Tried this recipe?Let me know how it was!
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