Civil War Macaroni and Cheese

Easy mac cheese recipe based on an authentic American Civil War era recipe for maccaroni cheese.

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 45 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4


  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 pound elbow macaroni pasta (2 to 2 1/2 cups)
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 2 cups, packed, grated cheddar cheese (about 1/2 pound)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Nutmeg
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup bread crumbs
  • Cayenne (optional)


1 Cook the macaroni in milk: Heat the milk in a large saucepan until steamy. Stir in the dry macaroni pasta. Let come to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer. Pay attention while the macaroni is cooking in the milk as the milk may foam up and boil over if the milk gets too hot.

Cook the macaroni for 15 minutes or until done. The macaroni should absorb almost all of the milk.

2 Make the sauce with butter, cheese, spices: Preheat oven to 400°F. As soon as the macaroni is close to being done, melt the butter in a separate saucepan, stir in the grated cheese, black pepper to taste and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.

3 Mix the sauce and cooked macaroni: Once the cheese has melted, pour the sauce into the macaroni and milk mixture and stir to combine. Taste and add salt if needed.

4 Top with breadcrumbs and bake: Place macaroni and cheese mixture into a baking dish. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne (if using). Bake in a 400°F oven for 20 minutes or until the top is lightly browned.

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  • Astrid

    Has this recipe been changed at all? I have made this for years for my kids… tonight, two batches failed… the cheese sauce broke as soon as I added it to the mac & milk. Twice.

    Whole milk, full- fat white block cheddar I grated, and the same high protein pasta I have always used. Grated fresh nutmeg and white pepper.

    If anyone has any ideas, please share. As I said, I have made this for years. The sauce has never broken. Nothing has changed as far as ingredients I used and have always used.

    I am baffled and very disappointed.

  • dog

    not the best… just ok

  • Elisa

    This is one of my favorite recipes of all time. My mom made this for me for years, and as a sophomore in college, I’m constantly homesick for it and make it for myself. A great soul-warming dish.

  • Michelle

    I have been looking for a more simple to make homemade Mac and cheese and this one turned out amazing! I made it last weekend for a get together and it was a huge success! I didn’t stray too far from the original recipe. I used 2% milk, cheddar cheese and just salt, pepper and parsley for the seasoning. I just saw others who commented that were having issues with it and I’m not sure why. I did omit some of the butter because I did have leftover milk with the noodles but after baking it in the oven, I think the excess butter and milk would be fine. I would definitely recommend this recipe to a friend!!

  • Sharon

    This a mushy mess with terrible texture, unedible. Will not make again.

  • Ryan ash

    Not a fan, the dish turned out grainy. Won’t make it again

  • Sara S.

    I’ve made this several times (ok, MANY–I’m a mac and cheese fiend), and I have found that 4 cups of milk is consistently -way- too much milk for me. I suspect this happens because I’m afraid of the milk curdling, and therefore cook it at a rather low temp (and probably for longer than the recipe calls for, though I confess I have not timed it), so the pasta absorbs less of the milk but is tenderized by its acidity, kind of like it has been marinated. In any case, the texture of the pasta when cooked this way is incomparable–I just need to figure out how much milk to actually use.

    Would highly recommend sticking with whole milk, as per the recipe. It doesn’t turn out nearly as well with 2%. I shudder to think what it would be like with skim.

    I’ve also started subbing out a bit of the cheddar with parmesan and adding some dijon mustard to heighten the flavor. My favorite cheddar to use for this dish, or any mac and cheese, is Cabot’s Vermont Extra Sharp. Some of the others I’ve tried have been on the bland side.

  • Janel

    Was hoping for a good result on this recipe – yours are usually so awesome! But ended up with a gross mess of oily cheese in the extra pot, and then had to stir so much to get it to mix with the larger pot my noodle broke apart… to left overs today and it was gritty and gross… I will be following the broccoli Cheddar mac and cheese recipe from here on out! That one is perfect.

  • Stephanie Ann

    Macaroni during the 1850s and 60s was “pipe macaroni” and was similar to the noodles that come with packages of Mac and Cheese today.

    Here’s another Civil War Era Macaroni and Cheese Recipe:

  • Lynda

    I made this recipe and reviewed it here:
    Happy Eating!

  • Eve

    I have to say this is the first time I’ve tried once of your recipes and it hasn’t worked out like I expected. I may have done something wrong but I’m confused about the step that involves melting the cheese and the butter separately. It’s really hard to turn it into a sauce without involving the milk, and when my shredded cheese had fully absorbed the butter it had turned into one large chunk of cheese, making it very difficult to blend it with the pasta + milk in the other sauce pan. Also once the pasta had baked and cooled down a bit, it seemed that it had absorbed all the milk (though there was a creamy milk + cheese sauce when it went into the oven) and it was no longer creamy, just cheesy + the breadcrumbs. Any tips?

    It’s so hard to tell, every brand of cheese is different. Could be what works for you needs more milk. Perhaps adding some milk to the cheese in the separate pan. Perhaps adding more milk to the macaroni before it goes in the oven. Although I made this several times with cheddar, I would like to try it again with Parmesan, which according to one Civil War expert I recently read was more common than cheddar and would have been more likely to have been used in this recipe. That would probably make it even less like the mac and cheese that we have become accustomed to. ~Elise

    • John F.

      My mother makes this…try using half cheddar and half Velveeta cheese. Not authentic, but works great.

  • Joyce

    Great recipe!. I often try these older recipes and somehow something just doesn’t work out. This one did and it’s so good! Thanks for posting!

  • RiiRii

    I realllllllllllllllllllly liked this

  • Eryn

    Just whipped this up in under an hour–delicious! I think it’s going to replace my mother’s tasty but elaborate macaroni casserole with bechamel sauce.

  • Georgette

    Served this tonight for dinner party. I thought I had a box of elbow macaroni in the pantry but they turned out to be penne pasta. Still, the dish was a hit. Used sharp yellow cheddar & some leftover white garlic cheddar. Had some doubts about boiling the pasta in milk, but it was delicious & everyone had seconds.

  • CM

    This has become my go-to mac and cheese recipe! It’s so easy and requires so little prep and active time. I’ve been making it once a week or so because my 4-year old loves it and actually gets excited about eating dinner when I make it. I do it all in one pot instead of making the cheese sauce separately. I’ve successfully halved and doubled the recipe (the doubled recipe is especially easy to remember — one box of pasta, one stick of butter, one carton of milk, one pound of cheese!) I’ve made it with 2% milk and it still tastes good but the sauce is a little lumpy. I usually use a blend of jack and cheddar.

  • Sara

    I tried this and it curdled horribly. I was doubling the recipe — using 1 pound of pasta. The pasta did not even come close to absorbing all the milk. I am wondering if it is because I used a low-fat milk. I’m guessing that when the recipe was written they would have used only whole milk.

  • Dawn

    I made this last night with the Steak Diane recipe. I think I prepared the meal in about 45 minutes including a salad. It was fantastic! Thanks again for another great recipe.

  • Sandra Regina

    Made this for a potluck at work today. It came together so easily (I melted the butter & cheese right in the pot). The spoonful I snuck ‘to taste’ did taste wonderful. Here’s hoping its a success at work!

  • Michael

    Well, I’m this is pure user error, but I ended up burning the heck out of the bottom of the pasta and milk mixture. Is this a “stir constantly” sort of thing? I followed the instructions exactly, but wound up with a burnt mess in the pan.

  • Stacy

    This was not a successful recipe for me, which is most likely due to user error. Bah. The cheddar was a stringy, clumpy, separated mess before I even put into the mac and milk mixture. Any thoughts on why? I love the concept of the recipe and will probably try it again with a different variety of cheese that melts a bit better than cheddar.

  • Catherine

    I made this the other night and really liked it. Used very strong English cheddar. The pasta I used was the small ear shaped pasta. I added a bit of Cholula sauce to the mix plus hot paprika on top. I think I will add some raw spinach leaves to the mixture next time before baking as I think they will blend well with the nutmeg flavoring. Also plan on using half cottage cheese and half cheddar. Very comforting to eat. I had it on its own with a salad but will probably serve sausages next time.


  • DH

    Yum!! Thank you it was a refreshing change. We will be making again.!

  • Cynthia Richardson

    This recipe is awesome. I made this and added more cheese and different types of cheese. It was hard to season it with salt so I think I will add the salt to the milk as I cook the macaroni. I am going to make a LARGE batch of this for my Doctoral graduation party next month. My family and friends will love this!!!

  • Christina

    I timidly made this and at dinner both my girls started chanting ‘more often’ at the dinner table as they thought this an idea dinner. Hugh. Both my husband and I were very pleased aswell. Cooking in milk gave the noodles a nice consistancy, it was rich, and alittle goes a long way. We liked it better then America’s Test kitchen mac and cheese recipe that had been our regular recipe. Now this is! I can’t wait to bring this to the next pot luck event.

  • CB

    This was a great recipe – I started in my cast iron coated dutch oven and did not melt the cheese and butter in another pot, just put it right in when the macaroni was done.

    I also doubled the recipe and used 4 cups milk and 4 cups half and half – next time I will do all half – and half. I also added a box of cream cheese, something i have done before and i think it was just great, if anything it was a little dry.

  • Erin

    I did it again last night and instead of melting the cheese and butter separately, I put them right into the pot with the milk and macaroni (I added the cheese slowly). It came out awesome!

    I’ve added the cheese directly to the pasta and have had it curdle, so who knows? I do think it has something to do with the amount of excess milk, but I could be wrong about that. ~Elise

  • Erin

    Mine also curdled – I used pre grated cheddar. Is that wrong?

    Could be, or it could too much milk for the amount of pasta. ~Elise

  • ~Nancy

    I made this the other night and I’m not sure what happened because the cheese sauce curdled once I added it to the macaroni milk mixture. What did I do wrong?!? Help…

    Hi Nancy, I’ve made this again a couple of times and once it curdled as well. That time instead of measuring out by weight the macaroni, I just used cups. Problem was the macaroni was larger and I actually needed more to get to the 1/2 pound. So, there ended up being a lot of milk left in the pan when the pasta was done and the cheese curdled. When I made it again with more macaroni (a full 1/2 pound) I didn’t have a problem. I’ve adjusted the recipe to reflect this. ~Elise

  • Sarah

    Is it possible to make this mac & cheese without baking it? The reason I ask is because I don’t have an oven. I live in Japan, in an apartment the size of a closet with a kitchen the size of a phone booth. All I have is a single-burner stove. Kinda like camping. This recipe is making me drool (not exaggerating….I am swallowing back the saliva here) but not sure if it will be any good if I can’t bake it. Thoughts?

    Sure, just don’t add the breadcrumbs or do the last oven step. ~Elise

  • Ali Reynolds

    Thank you! This is awsome. I ran across the recipe and had everything on hand. Put it in a large pie dish and topped it with Panko crumbs. Heaven! Next time just to change it up, I will add some diced Ortega green chilis.

  • Sara Bowe

    I think I may have made a tactical error in making this civil war mac o cheese. My boyfriend is a history buff and a Mac and cheese lover. I made this tonight, scorched the first batch of milk, made a heck of a mess of the kitchen but the end result was met with rave reviews. I liked the addition of the hot pepper because all the mac o cheese i’ve ever had needed a bit of kick. You always have great recipes, but somehow you make everything seem easy!

  • Elise R.

    Gettysburg is one of my favorite historical places to go! We live about 45 minutes away from it, but don’t go as often as we should.

    Mac and cheese is a huge favorite in our house, and I can’t wait to try out this tried and true recipe! Who would’ve thought that it was such a popular meal even back then? But then again, 150 years isn’t that long ago, is it? :)

  • Bonita Braun

    I added the mac and cheese recipe to our ‘old fashion’ comfort food dinner and movie night. I cooked it as given. With one exception which is I may have been heavy on red pepper! Worked well with nutmeg though which was dried and not fresh. Hot dogs and baked beans rounded out a good meal for four. I have been blessed by being able to visit the places you mention and hope all may be able to do the trip.

  • Valerie

    Made this last night, used non-fat milk and chedder/jack cheese blend. Increased recipe by 1/3 to feed everyone. My kids loved it! Didn’t have breadcrumbs so I toasted 3 slices of bread and crumpled them on top. Also, stirred in the butter & cheese directly into the pot with the noodles until melted. Worked great. I will try sharp cheddar next time for more zing. Having the name “Civil War” in the recipe intrigued everyone enough to come to the dinner table on first call! Thanks!

  • Sally

    Made the Civil War Mac/cheese for lunch today. We all enjoyed it. Needed a bit of salt and I wish I had had all cheddar cheese (about half was the preshredded jack and cheddar), but we’ll use this recipe again for sure.

  • Dimara

    Made this last night, it was tasty, but the cheese separated and got all clumpy. I used smoked cheddar and fontina, but they were regular store brands. Were they not good quality and caused the separation? Still ate it and am enjoying leftovers today.

    I’ve made it a couple times since and I think the clumping issue has to do with how much milk is left in the pan after the macaroni is cooked. The milk should be almost all absorbed by the pasta. If there is too much milk, then the cheese can clump. The best way to avoid this is to measure out the pasta by weight. Elbow macaroni comes in different sizes, and the small size will pack together more and be more weight per cup. ~Elise

  • Rob

    Stumbled across this blog by accident but what and fun and interesting read. I’m over in Scotland in the UK and I love Mac n Cheese. I would normally use mustard powder as the spice and add fried leeks and bacon pieces to bulk it up.

  • Scott

    That worked amazingly well…Thanks for my new way of making Mac N Cheese!

  • EMK

    I had no idea the Macaroni and Cheese had such a long histry! Now we have so many kinds of mac and cheese recipes to choose from (Artisanal Mac and cheese recipe developed by Terrance Brennan is my current favorite! But I’ve never seen the recipes which require boiling pasta in milk! I have to give it a try!

  • Edith

    Made this for dinner last night and all loved it. The blue box company just lost a loyal customer! I added a pinch of turmeric to ‘orange’ it up so the kids wouldn’t go into orange box mac ‘n cheese withdrawal. :)

    Clever! ~Elise

  • Thom

    Made this last night and turned out okay… at least I didn’t scorch the milk! The next time I will use a quality cheddar and not the cheap store brand.

  • Filipa

    Hi Elise, Really enjoyed reading your post! I love Maccaroni Cheese though I can’t get my husband to eat it without adding chopped up grilled bacon! Thanks for the recipe, I will be adding Nutmeg & Cayenne pepper next time I make it! Filipa x

  • Jan

    I made this for dinner tonight and it was very good. I never thought to cook pasta in milk before. I added half an onion chopped and a large tomato that I diced up along with cayenne and a touch of mustard powder. Next time I will use a non-stick fry pan to cook the cheese mixture in – wasn’t easy cleaning it out of my stainless steel pot!

  • Tina

    Great post. I’ll have to try this recipe the next time I want mac & cheese. You know, the absolute best mac & cheese I’ve ever had in a restaurant was from the cage at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in DC. They serve it every day and it’s the richest, creamiest version I’ve ever had. From what I could tell from examining it while having lunch there a couple of weeks ago, they use sharp white cheddar, milk and cream, as well as just a touch of finely minced jalapeño. I think I’ll try your recipe with the addition of the jalapeño in place of the cayenne and see how it stack up.

  • Monica

    This sounds fantastic. I’ve never cooked my macaroni in milk so this sounds fab. I don’t know why that’s never occurred to me before since one my favorite variations of mac & cheese is when I’ve cooked my macaroni in tomato juice. Can’t wait to try this version! Thanks!

  • Cassie

    Would have never thought to boil the pasta in milk! That sounds delicious. When using cheddar for melting purposes I like to mix it with just a little bit of “super-melty” cheese like monterey jack or mozzarella or fontina, to help with the grainy texture that cheddar can sometimes have

  • Bella

    Would love to see the texture of the finished product– you know, a fork holding a bite so that I can see the consistency– especially since no roux is involved.

    What kind of cheddar works best? Mild, medium, sharp, extra sharp?

    It may be hard for most to make a bad batch of mac and cheese, but I always seem to find it easy to mess up!

    Sorry, we ate it all. No more for bite-sized photos. Since this dish is so open to interpretation, I would just use your favorite melty cheese. I used a medium cheddar, which was fine for our taste. ~Elise

  • Susan

    I grew up in the DC metro area (Rockville, MD) and have been to all those places and then some. The advantage of going to school in the area was the connection we could make to the history of the U.S, especially the civil war. We had field trips to all of the historical places every year I was in school. I’ve been a U.S. history buff ever since. Glad you were able to take your nephew to see those sites. There is so much to see in DC alone, but there is so much more just outside the area too. Good time of year, too, April and October are the best, weather-wise.
    I imagine the milk used back in the “olden days” was unhomogenized or pasturized and quite a bit creamier than what we use now. Even if they used milk where the cream had been skimmed off, the pasta would have leached some starch into the liquid (like rice does in rice pudding) and the cheese melted to thicken the dish. I’m definately going to try cooking the pasta in the milk next time I make mac and cheese. Thanks, Elise.

  • Cynthia

    This recipe sounds fantastic!!! I love Mac and Cheese and my husband always brags how his Step-mother made the best Mac and Cheese. I always make mine with a little “Red Eye” County Ham for a little extra flavor. I am going to try this version. I graduate next month with my Doctorate and we are having a big party. I am going to indeed make this version as everyone in my family loves it. I live in Petersburg, Va where the Battle of the Crater was fought. I have been to DC many times and have yet to go to Arlington National Cemetery. I will have to do that this summer along with going to “Ben’s Chili Bowel” for a “Half Smoke”. I love your blog and read it everyday at work. Keep those recipes coming. I save them all in my YummySoup software. Thanks again!

  • Lotti

    In Switzerland we call them “Chäshörnli” :-) .
    For the Grown-ups we make them with a lot of crispy dark-brown onion-stripes on the top.

  • Marilyn

    Why can’t you just stir the butter and grated cheese into to cooked macaroni and milk rather than use another pan? Yours is the only food blog I follow incidentally – great recipes, information and beautifully simply presented. Thank you for it.

    You could do that; I was trying to follow the method of the original recipe. ~Elise

  • razzle

    Yummy… mac n cheese… :) I was just thinking about it the other day. (okay I confess, the microwave little containers they sell at the supermarket kind) This looks so easy. I have to omit the cayenne though, spicy is not good for my baby girl. Can I use a mix of Jiffy corn muffin mix and crushed saltine crackers? I don’t have any bread for breadcrumbs…

    I think just the crushed saltines would work fine. ~Elise

  • booch221

    I’m curious about what kind of macaroni they had during the Civil War? I imagine they made it at home, although according to Wikipedia, the first industrial pasta factory in America was built in Brooklyn in 1848.

    Me too! I’m wondering if at that time, as in Jefferson’s time, macaroni just was a term for pasta, not the specific tubed and bent shape that we associate with the term now. ~Elise

  • Susan

    I wonder how this would work with Brown Rice elbows? Since there is no roux, it could easily be converted to gluten free. Think I’ll try that.

  • Rebecca Harrach

    This is a great post. Your writing is terrific. I love how you have historically contextualized this recipe.
    I have read that in some old recipes for macaroni and cheese the directions call for boiling the macaroni for “an hour and a quarter”, and if that did not make it soft enough, “another 15 minutes”. I guess tastes have changed! In any case, thank you for the recipe and the history.