How to Earn the Honor of Bringing Mac-and-Cheese to Christmas Dinner

Don’t mess with Mama.

When a Southern family hosts a big holiday meal, it's basically like the Olympics of casserole-making. And eating. Christmas dinner calls for all sorts of comforting baked dishes like classic green bean casserole and fluffy corn pudding. Additionally, there might be a jiggly gelatinous salad on the sideboard that only a few people will touch.

While all of the side dishes are made to wingman the Orange-Glazed Ham, beef tenderloin, or roasted duck that will be residing at the center of the table (in theory), everyone knows that the casseroles are the real stars of the Christmas show. And out of those casseroles, there is one that is so holy, so revered, that the whole family knows not to let just anyone make it. That's the macaroni-and-cheese. Only one person is allowed to bring the mac-and-cheese to Christmas dinner. Here's how to earn the honor.

Roasted Broccoli Macaroni and Cheese
Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Ginny Branch Stelling; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall

The Unsolicited Dish

While this cheesy pasta bake seems simple, it requires a seasoned hand to make just right. In the past, many Southern families have discovered this fact the hard way, after having to choke down a dry noodle that someone's new girlfriend showed up with. The next year, it's not surprising if neither the cursed mac-and-cheese or the girlfriend are allowed in the house for Christmas dinner. Kidding. Sort of. In fact, if you show up with an unannounced dish of macaroni, it can be considered blasphemy. A show of utmost vulgarity. An act of war. This often goes the same for Thanksgiving and Easter, too.

A Family Honor

Why is this particular dish so inflammatory? Because it's so beloved. It's a staple of any big meal, appealing to both kids and adults. There can be a dozen creamy green casseroles, but there is only one mac-and-cheese. Given that Southerners take food very seriously, just one family member is allowed the honor of bringing the macaroni-and-cheese, and it's typically Mama, Mama's sister, or Mama's Mama. Not even the cousin who went to culinary school gets to go near it.

Recipes to Try

Can you earn the right to bring the macaroni-and-cheese to a Southern Christmas dinner? Are you Dolly Parton? If not, the odds are slim. In the rare chance, check out our Best-Ever Macaroni-and-Cheese Recipes, and proceed with caution.

Cooking Tips

If you do get to make this sacred dish, there are rules. Macaroni-and-cheese needs to be creamy, cheesy, and have a golden brown topping. Now may not be the time to play around with fancy new seasonings or add-ins if that's not the way Mama has always done it. When that bubbling dish hits the holiday table, it needs to be the classic comfort dish of childhood memories.

Here are some tips to get it just right.

Grate the Cheese

Cheese for this dish is best grated by hand. The bagged cheese has a coating on it that prevents it from sticking together in the bag and from melting smoothly. Freshly grated cheese will melt right in.

Undercook the Pasta

You want firm pasta that's not overdone. Cook your pasta to al dente because it will cook longer as it bakes in the oven. The texture will be perfect, not mushy.

Bake Before Serving

While macaroni-and-cheese can be baked before your holiday gathering and rewarmed, it does tend to dry out. You want it straight from the oven for Christmas dinner. If necessary, you can make it ahead and then bake just before serving.

Even if you don't get to make this year's beloved dish, it's never too early to practice for when the chance does come your way.

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