Macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune)

Mac and cheese is all about technique. And you thought it was about the cheese.

There is more to achieving the best texture and flavor, says Ellen Brown, author of "Mac & Cheese: 80 Classic & Creative Versions of the Ultimate Comfort Food" (Running Press, $20).

"The difference between a good mac and cheese and a great mac and cheese is technique," says Brown, cookbook author, food columnist and former USA Today food editor. And the key elements of that technique are cooking the pasta to the proper doneness and stirring up a smooth sauce.

With those elements conquered, the third is an ingredient, not method, and is, of course, that cheese. You want to use flavorful cheese, certainly, but you also want a combination of two or more for complexity.

Whether stove top or baked (better, thank you), classic or with add-ins of various vegetables (greens, broccoli, artichokes) or proteins (lobster, chicken, bacon), a mac and cheese's greatness is built upon this foundation. Brown and Laura Werlin's "Mac & Cheese, Please!" break it down.

Mediterranean mac and cheese with olives

Prep: 30 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Adapted from "Mac & Cheese," by Ellen Brown, who adapted the recipe from S'MAC (Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in New York.

8 cloves garlic, unpeeled

1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil

6 ounces baby spinach

1/2 pound penne

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest