Easy Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Try my quick and easy pasta salads next.
And for this month’s savory recipe: baked mac & cheese! Or should I really call it shells & cheese? (Yuuuuum.)
Dinner ruts. You know what I’m talking about. Tired and hungry, when clock hits 6pm, you end up making the same chicken dish you’ve made 396 times before. Your usual dinner rotation is safe because the family loves it, but it’s also losing its appeal… quickly. Getting out of the rut feels like climbing a mountain because you’re busy, lacking inspiration, and/or you don’t have the right ingredients to try something new. I know it! I’m there with you.
So here’s what I’m doing this year and feel free to borrow it. My goal is to make a new-to-us dinner recipe each week. That’s not a huge commitment because it’s only 1 night a week, but the slight variation makes our “regulars” taste a little less mundane. The latest and greatest in my kitchen? This straight-up comfort food in a skillet. It’s nothing crazy or unique, but it’s not something I usually make either. I honestly can’t remember the last time I had homemade macaroni and cheese, which is the reason I chose it. Also: cheeeeeeeeese.
PS: for this week, I’m aiming for a chicken coconut curry dish OR homemade pad thai. Could go either way– I’m craving both and Kevin likes either. Do you have any recipe suggestions?
But right now, let me show you how to make this easy baked macaroni and cheese. And I promise, it really IS easy!
Four Steps to Baked Mac & Cheese
- Make the noodles. You can use any shape you’d like; I went for shells because how irresistible are shells & cheese? My second pick would be elbow macaroni. Add a little butter so the noodles don’t stick. ↑ ↑
- Make the sauce. Let’s get to those step pictures in a second.
- Combine the buttered noodles and sauce.
The sauce is prepared in the same skillet in which you’ll bake the mac & cheese. You’ll start by making a béchamel sauce. Don’t get nervous, it’s just how you begin the cheese sauce. Basically you’ll melt down some butter, add flour and milk, then stir in cheddar cheese, salt, and spices. And a dash of hot sauce for kick! Let it all simmer and melt for a few minutes. Soon you’ll have the creamiest, most flavorful cheese sauce. For the best results, I recommend an extra sharp cheddar. You can use mostly cheddar plus another cheese for more flavor. I’ll add that to the notes below. And for optimal flavor, shred the cheese yourself– don’t buy the pre-shredded cheddar. The pre-shredded bagged cheese typically has stabilizers and a drier texture. You want it off the block!
Here are the spices: garlic powder, smoked paprika, and mustard powder. I highly recommend the mustard powder for a sharp kick and added depth of flavor. Same reason I rave about it in this ham & cheese strata!
My secret ingredient though? I add 2 ounces of cream cheese when it’s time to mix the noodles + sauce together. This just adds another level of creamy + dreamy + indulgent + rich.
Combine it all together, then add a crunchy topping.
Why Bake Macaroni & Cheese?
Doesn’t that just add another step? Yes, it does. But baking macaroni and cheese adds texture! Cheesy creamy underneath a crunchy, toasty, crisp topping. The topping is simply Panko breadcrumbs mixed with some melted butter. I used pre-seasoned Panko for extra flavor. If you use regular breakcrumbs or Panko, add some flavor with parmesan and garlic powder.
And while the oven does some work, you can prepare a healthy salad to balance out your plate. 🙂
“Get out of the dinner rut” recipes: breakfast for dinner, strawberry bacon salad (add some chicken!), coconut chicken, pizza night, peanut chicken zucchini noodles, and this citrus avocado kale salad is SO GOOD with salmon!
Easy Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 1 pound (450g) elbow macaroni (or shells!)
- 6 Tablespoons (86g) unsalted butter, divided
- 3 Tablespoons (24g) all-purpose flour
- 2 and 1/2 cups (600ml) whole milk1
- 3 and 1/2 cups (14 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese2
- 1/2 teaspoon each: salt, ground mustard, smoked paprika, and garlic powder
- optional: dash of hot sauce
- 2 ounces (55g) brick-style cream cheese
- 1 cup (90g) Panko breadcrumbs3
- optional for serving: finely chopped fresh parsley
- 12-inch oven-safe skillet or 9x13 baking pan
- Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C).
- In a large pot of boiling water, add a pinch of salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente, about 1-2 minutes less than the package cook time. Drain the cooked pasta, pour into a large bowl and stir in 2 Tablespoons of butter. Set pasta aside.
- In a large saucepan or 12-inch oven-safe skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat. Once melted, whisk in the flour to form a thick paste. Cook and whisk the paste for 1 minute, then slowly whisk in the milk, a little at a time. Once all of the milk is added, continue to whisk. The sauce will begin to simmer. Slowly whisk in the cheddar cheese, a little at a time. Once all of the cheese is added, continue to whisk as the cheese melts down and the sauce becomes smooth and thick. Whisk in the salt, ground mustard, smoked paprika, garlic powder, and hot sauce (if using).
- Pour the sauce over the buttered pasta. Add the cream cheese and stir everything together until the pasta is completely coated and cream cheese is melted. Scoop pasta back into skillet or a 9x13 pan.
- Melt the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and mix with the Panko. Sprinkle over pasta.
- Bake pasta for 30-35 minutes or until it is lightly browned on top and the sides are bubbling. I suggest covering the pasta halfway through bake time to prevent the top from burning.
- All to sit for 5 minutes before serving with a little fresh parsley. Careful, it's hot!
Make ahead tip/freezing: To make ahead of time, simply prepare the dish through step 5. Cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days before continuing with step 6. You can also freeze the macaroni and cheese after step 5 for up to 3 months. Allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then continue with step 6. Add about 5 minutes to bake time. You can also freeze the fully baked macaroni and cheese for up to 3 months. Allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bake at 400°F (204°C) for 40 minutes.
- Whole milk is strongly recommended for richest tasting sauce. If needed, you can use a lower fat or nondairy milk. Keep in mind that the sauce won't be as rich.
- For best flavor, I recommend a sharp cheddar and to buy a block or two and grate yourself. It's freshest that way. The pre-shredded bagged cheese typically has stabilizers and a drier texture. You can also use a mix of cheddar and other favorite cheese such as Gruyere, fontina, or gouda.
- I used seasoned Panko, which you can find in the breadcrumb aisle at the store. You can use plain. If you use plain, feel free to add a little dried parsley, grated parmesan cheese, and some garlic powder. This is just for extra yummy flavor.
Adapted from Alton Brown
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You’ll also love my creamy butternut squash mac and cheese with kale!