The key to this baked macaroni and cheese is the rich and velvety cheese sauce made with sharp cheddar and smooth cream cheese. Topped with breadcrumbs and baked for a wonderfully crisp and textured finish, this is comfort food at its best.
If you’ve been in a dinner rut lately, you likely need a boost of motivation with a simple strategy. Here’s what I do and you’re welcome to borrow it: prepare a new-to-you dinner recipe just once a week. When I’m bored in the kitchen, I use this easy and manageable one-night-a-week commitment to keep dinnertime creative, interesting, and satisfying.
The latest and greatest dinner recipe in my kitchen is baked macaroni and cheese. It’s certainly nothing new and unique, but it makes a terrific meat-free meal alongside something healthier like fresh salad or steamed green beans.
Tell Me About this Baked Mac & Cheese
- Texture: Elbow macaroni can be used in this recipe, but I prefer pasta shells. I just love the way the cheese sauce sticks to the ridged surface and fills the shells. Coupled with the slightly toasted, crisp Panko topping, this baked mac & cheese is amped up with rustic texture.
- Flavor: This recipe offers all the cheesiness you expect from a good macaroni and cheese recipe, but I’ve enhanced it with garlic powder, smoked paprika, and mustard powder. The mustard powder adds a sharp kick and added depth of flavor. It’s the same seasoning I rave about it in my ham & cheese strata.
- Ease: Pretty easy. The recipe can be broken down into three manageable parts: cooking the pasta, making the sauce, and adding a topping. Plus, it’s an excellent make-ahead freezer meal—prepare everything in advance and freeze it. When you’re ready to serve, thaw overnight and bake.
- Time: Set aside about 40 minutes to complete this recipe.
How to Make the Baked Macaroni & Cheese Sauce
The full printable recipe is below, but let’s walk through how to make the best macaroni & cheese sauce.
Start the baked macaroni and cheese recipe by making a béchamel sauce. (Don’t get nervous: it’s always the start of a classic cheese sauce.) Melt some butter, add flour and milk, then stir in cheddar cheese, salt, and spices. And a dash of hot sauce for a kick. Let it all simmer and melt for a few minutes. Soon you’ll have the creamiest, most flavorful cheese sauce.
- Best cheese to use: Use extra sharp cheddar for the best flavor. Or instead, try mixing it up by using half cheddar and another cheese such as gouda, fontina, or gruyere.
- For optimal flavor: Shred the cheese yourself. Don’t buy the pre-shredded cheddar, which typically has stabilizers and a drier texture. For the best cheese sauce, you want the cheese right off the block.
After you combine the buttered noodles and cheese sauce, stir in 3 ounces of cream cheese. This adds creaminess and creates an extra indulgent macaroni and cheese—especially needed since we’ll bake it.
Why Bake Macaroni and Cheese?
Doesn’t that just add another step? Yes, it does, but a baked macaroni and cheese offers so much more texture than the stovetop versions. Who can resist that cheesy creamy underneath a crisp, toasted topping made with Panko breadcrumbs and melted butter? I used pre-seasoned Panko for extra flavor, but you can add parmesan and garlic powder to plain breadcrumbs or Panko.
If you’re looking for an amped-up favorite, try this company-worthy macaroni and cheese recipe which features bacon, sautéed spinach, and white cheddar.
More Dinner RecipesPrint
This baked macaroni and cheese recipe combines delicious sharp cheddar and cream cheese for a flavorful and creamy cheese sauce. Before serving, top with breadcrumbs and bake. Breadcrumbs add a wonderfully crisp texture on top of the soft cheesy pasta.
- 1 pound (450g) dry elbow pasta or pasta shells
- 6 Tablespoons (85g) unsalted butter, divided
- 3 Tablespoons (24g) all-purpose flour
- 3 cups (720ml) whole milk*
- 3 and 1/2 cups (about 14 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese*
- 1/2 teaspoon each: salt, ground mustard, smoked paprika, and garlic powder
- dash of hot sauce (optional)
- 3 ounces (85g) full-fat brick cream cheese
- 1 cup (90g) Panko breadcrumbs*
- optional for serving: finely chopped fresh parsley
- 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 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. Once all of the milk is added, continue to whisk. Bring to a simmer. Once simmering, whisk in the cheese until smooth. Whisk in the salt, ground mustard, smoked paprika, garlic powder, and hot sauce (if using). Cook for 2-3 minutes until thickened.
- 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 greased 9×13 inch pan.
- Melt the remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter and mix with the Panko. Sprinkle over pasta.
- Bake pasta for 30 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.
- Allow to sit for 5 minutes before serving with a little fresh parsley. Careful, it’s hot!
- Make Ahead & Freezing Instructions: 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.
- Special Tools (affiliate links): Large Pot or Dutch Oven | Skillet | 9×13 Pan
- Milk: 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 taste as rich and creamy.
- Cheese: For best flavor, I recommend sharp cheddar. Buy a block or two and grate it yourself because 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 another favorite cheese such as Gruyere, fontina, or gouda.
- Breadcrumbs: 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 flavor.
- Adapted from Alton Brown
Keywords: macaroni and cheese