Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese

Mac and cheese is comfort food at its finest. Loaded with carbs, ooey, gooey, creamy cheese sauce, and crunchy topping—it’s practically begging you to put on yoga pants and stay in for the night!

For this version, I wanted something quick and simple. I also wanted it to look similar in color to the box of Kraft Mac and Cheese my children have grown to idolize. They are a little older now, so I’m ready to migrate to a more grownup version!

What Is the Best Pasta for Mac and Cheese?

You want something that is sturdy and will hold the sauce within the pasta. Shapes with folds or tubes are better than bows or straight noodles.

My top two choices are:

  1. Elbow Macaroni
  2. Cavatappi (also known as Cellentani)

My distant second favorites are:

  1. Campanelle
  2. Shells (a second choice only because they’re delicate and can break down)

Skip the Roux!

Traditionally, macaroni and cheese starts with a roux and a béchamel sauce. Béchamel — in the most basic modern sense — is a combination of butter, flour, and milk. When you add cheese to the sauce, it becomes Mornay.

I realize it’s sacrilege to skip a foundational sauce like this when making mac and cheese, but I did it for a couple of reasons.

First, pasta is already starchy. I didn’t really need more starch in the form of flour.

Second, if I can skip a step and still make tasty mac and cheese on a weeknight, I’m going to. I value my time, and so should you.

Three Steps for Easy Cheese Sauce

  1. Combine cream cheese and some of the milk. Smoosh the cream cheese so it breaks down.
  2. Whisk it so it’s homogenous.
  3. Whisk in the rest of the milk, and add the cheddar a handful at a time until it’s fully incorporated
Macaroni and Cheese recipe - forkful of mac and cheese being lifted from a macaroni and cheese on a gray plate
 

Short on Time?

Skip the baking step! Pour the noodles into the cheese sauce, stir to combine, and serve as-is.

If you still want the crispy top on your stove-top mac and cheese, combine the ingredients for the topping, and toast in a skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle over your bowl and serve.

Storing and Reheating Mac and Cheese

There is no easy way to tell you this: This particular baked macaroni and cheese will not reheat to its previous glory. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; it’s just different.

You can reheat it in the oven to re-crisp the breadcrumb topping, but the mac and cheese part won’t be as creamy as it was when you first made it.

Keep mac and cheese covered in your fridge, and microwave the leftovers for up to a week.

how to stir macaroni into cheese sauce for mac and cheese
 

How to Make Ahead and Freeze

You can freeze this unbaked casserole and then bake it later, but the mac and cheese isn’t quite as creamy as it would be if you baked it straight away. I, however, don’t mind exchanging a little creaminess for knowing I have a freezer meal waiting.

To freeze, make the recipe up to the point where you combine the sauce and the noodles, but don’t bake it. Instead, let the mac and cheese cool in the pan on the counter.

Cover with a layer of aluminum foil. Then plastic wrap. Then freeze. It will keep for one month in the freezer.

Bake from frozen for one hour. Top with breadcrumb topping and place under the broiler for 15 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden.

I prefer to shred my own cheese for two reasons. First, I can buy higher quality cheese, and second, I get a smoother texture when I shred it myself.

From what I’ve read, pre-shredded cheese is less smooth because anti-caking agents are added. Will pre-shredded cheese work? Absolutely! If you’re in a hurry, go for it. But if you have a few extra minutes, shredding the cheese yourself will make the dish that much better!

Pick two or three:

  • Cheddar
  • Smoked cheeses, such as gouda or mozzarella
  • Monterey Jack
  • Fontina—a nice mild cheese that melts beautifully
  • Gruyere—a Swiss cheese. (Swiss can vary in the intensity of flavor just like cheddar, so ask for a sample to find the brand you like best.)
  • Plain mozzarella
  • Cream cheese

Skip the Roux!

Traditionally, macaroni and cheese starts with a roux and a béchamel sauce. Béchamel — in the most basic modern sense — is a combination of butter, flour, and milk. When you add cheese to the sauce, it becomes Mornay.

I realize it’s sacrilege to skip a foundational sauce like this when making mac and cheese, but I did it for a couple of reasons.

First, pasta is already starchy. I didn’t really need more starch in the form of flour.

Second, if I can skip a step and still make tasty mac and cheese on a weeknight, I’m going to. I value my time, and so should you.

Three Steps for Easy Cheese Sauce

  1. Combine cream cheese and some of the milk. Smoosh the cream cheese so it breaks down.
  2. Whisk it so it’s homogenous.
  3. Whisk in the rest of the milk, and add the cheddar a handful at a time until it’s fully incorporated
Macaroni and Cheese recipe - forkful of mac and cheese being lifted from a macaroni and cheese on a gray plate
 

Short on Time?

Skip the baking step! Pour the noodles into the cheese sauce, stir to combine, and serve as-is.

If you still want the crispy top on your stove-top mac and cheese, combine the ingredients for the topping, and toast in a skillet over medium heat. Sprinkle over your bowl and serve.

Storing and Reheating Mac and Cheese

There is no easy way to tell you this: This particular baked macaroni and cheese will not reheat to its previous glory. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; it’s just different.

You can reheat it in the oven to re-crisp the breadcrumb topping, but the mac and cheese part won’t be as creamy as it was when you first made it.

Keep mac and cheese covered in your fridge, and microwave the leftovers for up to a week.

how to stir macaroni into cheese sauce for mac and cheese
 

How to Make Ahead and Freeze

You can freeze this unbaked casserole and then bake it later, but the mac and cheese isn’t quite as creamy as it would be if you baked it straight away. I, however, don’t mind exchanging a little creaminess for knowing I have a freezer meal waiting.

To freeze, make the recipe up to the point where you combine the sauce and the noodles, but don’t bake it. Instead, let the mac and cheese cool in the pan on the counter.

Cover with a layer of aluminum foil. Then plastic wrap. Then freeze. It will keep for one month in the freezer.

Bake from frozen for one hour. Top with breadcrumb topping and place under the broiler for 15 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden.

FAQ

What is Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese?

Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese is a classic comfort food dish made with macaroni pasta coated in a rich and creamy cheese sauce, topped with breadcrumbs, and baked until golden and bubbly. It’s a hearty and satisfying dish that’s perfect for gatherings, potlucks, or as a comforting weeknight meal.

How do I make Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese?

To make Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese, start by cooking macaroni pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the cheese sauce by melting butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour to create a roux, then gradually whisk in milk until smooth and thickened. Add shredded cheese (such as cheddar, mozzarella, or Gruyère) to the sauce and stir until melted and creamy. Season the sauce with salt, pepper, and any desired herbs or spices. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the cheese sauce, stirring until well coated. Transfer the mac and cheese mixture to a baking dish, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, and bake in a preheated oven until the top is golden brown and the cheese is bubbly. Serve hot and enjoy!

What ingredients are needed to make Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese?

The main ingredients for Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese include macaroni pasta, butter, all-purpose flour, milk, shredded cheese (such as cheddar, mozzarella, or Gruyère), breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, and optionally, herbs or spices for added flavor. You can also customize the dish by adding ingredients like cooked bacon, diced ham, caramelized onions, or diced tomatoes for extra flavor and texture.

Can I make Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese ahead of time?

Yes, you can prepare Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese ahead of time and refrigerate it before baking. Simply assemble the mac and cheese as instructed, but do not bake it. Cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one day. When ready to bake, remove the dish from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to take the chill off. Then, bake it in a preheated oven until heated through and bubbly, adding a few extra minutes to the baking time if needed.

What are some tips for making the creamiest baked mac and cheese?

To ensure your Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese turns out extra creamy and delicious, consider the following tips:

    • Use a combination of cheeses for depth of flavor and creaminess.
    • Be sure to cook the pasta al dente, as it will continue to cook slightly in the oven.
    • Gradually add the milk to the roux when making the cheese sauce to prevent lumps and ensure a smooth texture.
    • Use whole milk or half-and-half for a richer sauce.
    • Don’t skip the breadcrumbs on top—they add a crunchy texture and contrast to the creamy mac and cheese.

 

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