So amazingly rich, creamy, and buttery, this Macaroni Gratin with homemade white sauce is true comfort food! The golden, crunchy panko topping makes it even more irresistible. You’ll need this casserole recipe in your life.
Once in a while, you may spot western-looking dishes on Just One Cookbook and wonder why they are on a Japanese food blog. You might be surprised that there are a lot of popular western-style dishes we enjoy in Japan, like this casserole. Creamy and buttery Macaroni Gratin (マカロニグラタン) was my favorite dish growing up.
Macaroni Gratin – Japanese Version
When I searched macaroni gratin in English online, I quickly realized that “macaroni gratin” looks quite different from what Japanese people would imagine. Most macaroni gratins I saw online are more of a cheesy casserole dish, much like a fancier version of mac and cheese.
So let me say first that this is NOT mac and cheese. The recipe I share today is a typical Japanese rendition of Macaroni Gratin and you may spot it being served in Yoshoku (western-style) restaurants and cafes in Japan.
Japanese macaroni is cooked with shrimp or/and chicken, onion, and mushrooms in Béchamel sauce and topped with melted cheese, but not as cheesy as the American version.
I couldn’t help but feeling all nostalgic about my own childhood every time I make this dish for my children. As my mom normally cooked more traditional food at home, my brother and I would get really excited when she decided to make a western-style dish like macaroni gratin. It was such a treat for us! Part of the fun was to pick up the macaroni pieces with the sharp prongs of the fork as we eat. I particularly love the burnt cheese and crusty panko topping, and always saved the best-toasted pieces for the last bite. Did you do that too?
5 Key Ingredients for the Gratin
Gratins are easy to make and it has the visual appeal that screams comfort. Here are the 5 key ingredients for gratins.
- Macaroni – Japanese small straight macaroni pasta is not available here so I used elbow pasta instead. You can use Rigatoni as well, but I personally like the small pasta, so it will be well-coated with the white sauce.
- Ingredients – Onion, chicken/shrimp, and mushrooms are commonly used. But this is where you can be flexible and creative.
- White Sauce – See the next section below.
- Cheese – Japanese use Torokeru Cheese (とろけるチーズ, “melting cheese”), which is a blend of different cheeses. Since I can’t get that here in the US, I opted for commonly used cheese for gratin; gruyere and parmesan. If you prefer other types of cheese, you can use it.
- Panko – Japanese gratins always get a sprinkle of panko for nice char look and delicious crust.
Gratin dishes vs Braiser
In today’s recipe, I used a Le Creuset 3.75QT Braiser. It’s a perfect size to feed 4 as a main dish and 6-8 as a side dish. The best part about using a braiser is that you can transfer from the stove to the oven and to the table directly. You just need to prepare plates for diving the gratin.
If you’re serving Macaroni Gratin individually, these colorful Staub 6.5″ gratin dishes are an absolute joy to bring to the table. I also have white gratin dishes from World Market, but a creamy gratin dish in a white ceramic doesn’t have much contrast.
Tips for Making White Sauce from Scratch
What is White Sauce?
White sauce (ホワイトソース), or also known as Béchamel sauce, is a classic all-purpose French sauce made from butter, flour, and milk. It sounds fancy, but it’s actually pretty easy and simple to make at home.
Here are the 3 simple steps:
- Melt the butter in a saucepan.
- Add flour and whisk until flour is cooked.
- Gradually add milk until thickened to the right consistency.
The basic white sauce ratio:
The simple ratio (by weight) is 1 (butter):1 (flour):10(milk). Easy to remember, right?
Here is an example – 50 g butter : 50 g flour : 500 g/ml milk.
Besides butter, you can also use ghee, coconut oil or other fat. You can also use gluten-free flour in place of all-purpose flour. You can add more milk if you desire a thinner sauce, but keep the equal weights for butter and flour.
A Quick Method of Making White Sauce
You can definitely make the white sauce separately, and add it to the cooked ingredients, in the same way as you use a store-bought white sauce jar.
However, in this recipe, I will show you how to combine cooked ingredients while you’re making the white sauce. There are 2 important things to remember.
- Combine the flour and cooked ingredients together. Stir constantly so the flour will be cooked but won’t burn.
- Add in a small amount of milk to the flour mixture. Combine well before you add the next batch of milk.
This process may take some time, but the white sauce will achieve a velvety texture and no lump! You’ll see the difference when your macaroni coated in the silky, glossy sauce.
Sake Pairing with Macaroni Gratin
While macaroni gratin is the ultimate comfort food, you can elevate it with the companion of sake. We served the gratin with Sho Chiku Bai Shirakabegura Kimoto Junmai, one of our favorite sake and dinner just feel extra special. This sake is velvety smooth and so full of flavors.
Brewed with yeast starter produced from the traditional kimoto method, the resulting sake is smooth, silky, and luscious compared to other sakes you might have tried. When you think of sake food pairings, Japanese food typically comes to mind but for this creamy rich pasta, it matched perfectly with the Shirakabegura Junmai Kimoto sake.
With its flavorful and soft characteristics, it pairs well with many foods including marbled steak, creamy pasta, and fatty fish. If you have a few guests over, you can never go wrong with the pairing of comfort and elegance in the menu.
Looking for more casserole dishes? We think you’ll love these:
Japanese Ingredient Substitution: If you want to look for substitutes for Japanese condiments and ingredients, click here.
- 5 oz shrimp (12 pieces)
- 8 oz boneless, skinless chicken thigh (1-2 pieces)
- 2 Tbsp sake (separated)
- 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- ⅛ tsp kosher/sea salt (I use Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt)
- freshly ground black pepper
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter (¼ cup; do not reduce the amount)
- ½ onion (6 oz or 170 g)
- 4 oz cremini mushrooms (6 pieces; can use button mushrooms)
- 1 Tbsp mirin
- 6 Tbsp all-purpose flour (plain flour)
- 2 ½ cups whole milk
- ½ cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 tsp kosher/sea salt (I use Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt)
- ½ tsp white pepper powder
- 8 oz uncooked elbow macaroni (roughly 2 cups)
- 1 Tbsp kosher/sea salt (I use Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt) (for cooking pasta in 3 QT water)
- 2 oz Gruyere cheese
- 2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) cheese
- 3 Tbsp panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- chives (to garnish)
- Gather all the ingredients.
To Prepare Ingredients
- If your shrimp come with veins, peel the shell, remove the tail, and devein by scoring the back of shrimp and removing the black veins. Put the shrimp in a small bowl and add 1 Tbsp sake. Coat the shrimp well with sake to remove the smell.
- Cut the chicken into small bite-size pieces, about 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes. Put them in a small bowl and add 1 Tbsp sake to remove the smell.
- Thinly slice the onion. Cut the mushrooms into ¼-inch (6 mm) thick slices.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and add 1 Tbsp olive oil. I use a Le Creuset 3.75QT braiser, which you can put in the oven and serve directly. Add the shrimp in a single layer.
- Season with salt and black pepper and cook until the bottom side changes color.
- Flip and cook the other side. When both sides achieve nice pink color, transfer to a plate. Do not overcook the shrimp. The remaining heat will continue to cook the shrimp, and later when the shrimp is cooked in the white sauce.
- In the same pan, add the 4 Tbsp (56 g) butter to the pan and let it melt over medium heat. Don’t worry, this 4 Tbsp is for making the white sauce; you will need this much fat to make enough white sauce for your macaroni. Add the onion and sauté until it is coated with butter.
- Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink. Season with salt and black pepper.
- When the chicken is no longer pink, add the mushrooms and coat with the oil.
- Add the shrimp back into the pan. Add 1 Tbsp mirin to the mixture and quickly coat with the ingredients.
- Turn the heat to medium-low and gradually add 6 Tbsp all-purpose flour to the mixture, stirring to combine with the ingredients.
- If the bottom of the pan is getting burnt, turn off the heat until you blend the flour with ingredients, then turn the heat back on to continue this process. Once the flour is well blended, cook for 2 minutes.
- Then gradually add the milk, ¼ cup at a time.
- Blend with the mixture well before you add the next ¼ cup of milk. The mixture will continue to thicken as you cook.
- Once all the milk is incorporated, add heavy whipping cream and cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.
- At this stage, you need to taste the white sauce and add salt and white pepper to taste. Remember to season a bit more than you would normally do. You will add in macaroni later, which makes the sauce less salty. Turn off the heat and set aside.
- To cook the pasta, bring the water to a rolling boil. Stir in salt (I added 1 Tbsp salt to 3 QT of water). Then cook the pasta al dente according to the package directions. Drain well.
- Stir the white sauce on medium-low heat and add the drained macaroni to combine with the sauce.
To Assemble & Bake
- Preheat the oven to 450ºF (230ºC). For a convection oven, reduce cooking temperature by 25ºF (15ºC). If you are using the oven-safe braiser, skip this step. If you are using individual gratin baking dishes, grease them with softened butter. Divide the macaroni mixture into 4 baking dishes.
- Divide the mixture – each Staub 6.5” baking dish should be filled 90%.
- Grate the Gruyère and Parmigiano Reggiano and generously sprinkle over the macaroni mixture.
- Sprinkle panko on top of the cheese, a bit less than 1 Tbsp for each baking dish. Broil high for 3-5 minutes (depending on the distance from the heat source), or until golden brown. If you don't have a broiler, bake at preheated 450ºF (230ºC) oven for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
- When the cheese is melted and panko is nicely charred, remove from the oven.
To Serve and Store
- Sprinkle finely chopped chives and serve immediately. You can keep the leftovers in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days and in the freezer for a month.