Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese

This Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese is just what your carb-loving soul needs! Macaroni bathed in rich, creamy cheese sauce topped with a flavorful breadcrumb topping and baked to perfection. Yes, please!

Bakeware for the photos in this post provided by Le Creuset.

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 are delicate and can break down)

WHAT IS THE BEST CHEESE FOR MAC AND CHEESE?

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 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

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 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 boiler for 15 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden.

CAN’T GET ENOUGH MAC AND CHEESE?!

  • Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese
  • Broccoli Cheddar Mac and Cheese
  • Chili Mac and Cheese
  • Quick Stovetop Mac and Cheese
  • Green Goddess Mac and Cheese

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