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!

Photography Credit: Alison Bickle

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!

Kraft mac and cheese - woman's hands holding a white casserole dish filled with baked mac and cheese

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

Best mac and cheese recipe - mac and cheese on a gray plate

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

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.

Homemade mac and cheese - macaroni noodles being stirred into a creamy cheese sauce with a wooden spatula

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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Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese Recipe

  • Prep time: 20 minutes
  • Cook time: 25 minutes
  • Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Serving a crowd? Feel free to double this recipe and bake it in a 9x13 dish.

Ingredients

For the topping:

  • 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup plain panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Pinch cayenne pepper

For the macaroni:

  • 10 ounces elbow macaroni pasta or cavatappi
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

For the sauce:

  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 10-ounce brick of cheddar cheese, shredded (about 3 cups thickly shredded cheddar cheese)
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

Garnish:

  • Minced parsley or chives (optional)

Method

1 Prepare the pan and heat the oven: Butter an 8x8 pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2 Make the topping: In a small bowl, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add panko, Parmesan, salt, smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper. Set aside.

3 Boil the pasta: Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium high heat. Add the macaroni and salt. Cook until the pasta is firm-tender, or al dente. Usually, this takes about a minute or two less than the cook time recommended on the box.

4 Drain and butter the pasta: Drain the pasta into a colander. Add 1 tablespoon butter to the same pot you boiled the pasta in. Add the drained pasta back to the pan and stir to coat. Remove from heat. You’ll get back to it later.

5 Make the sauce: In a large, high sided skillet set over medium heat, add the cream cheese, 1 cup of milk, and all of the spices. Break apart and smash the cream cheese with a spatula as it begins to soften and melt. Once the cream cheese is in pieces the size of a nickel or smaller, whisk the mixture until it’s homogeneous and thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Creamy Mac and cheese recipe - hand sprinkling shredded cheddar cheese into a cheese sauce and stirring it together.

6 Add the remaining milk and cheddar cheese: Whisk the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk into the sauce. Add the cheddar cheese one cup at a time, whisking continuously. Make sure each cup is incorporated before adding the next.

7 Add the pasta to the sauce: Once the sauce is thick like heavy whipping cream and homogeneous, add the pasta. Stir to coat. It will look soupy. That’s what you want. Transfer the mixture to the buttered 8x8 pan. Smooth the top.

Easy mac and cheese - hand in frame holding a pot with elbow macaroni and pouring it into a pan with cheese sauce and more elbow macaroniHomemade mac and cheese - macaroni noodles being stirred into a creamy cheese sauce with a wooden spatula

8 Top with panko and bake: Sprinkle the panko mixture over the top of the mac and cheese. Place in oven for 20 to 25 minutes until the top is golden brown and the cheese sauce is bubbling around the edges. Cool briefly before serving.

Best mac and cheese recipe -- hand sprinkling breadcrumbs ontop mac and chees in a white casserole dishKraft mac and cheese - woman's hands holding a white casserole dish filled with baked mac and cheese

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Summer Miller

Summer Miller is an Associate Editor for Handwerkstatt based in Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Bon Appetit, Eating Well, Grit, SAVEUR, and Every Day with Rachael Ray, among others. Her first book is New Prairie Kitchen (Agate Publishing, 2015).

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12 Comments / Reviews

No ImageCreamy Baked Mac and Cheese

  1. MominNE

    Took this to a cookout last night to try it out before making it for my son’s grad party. Everyone loved it, but I did need to adjust salt a bit so it had enough flavor .

    xxxxxyyyyy

    Show Replies (1)
  2. Corinne

    I have a deep-sided skillet I’ve used in the oven. Anything against skipping the transfer to a 8×8″ pan?

    Show Replies (1)
  3. Ross

    Question: The 8x8x? ” Le Creuset dish looks a lot deeper (and better) than our 8×8″ dish. How deep is your nice looking 8×8 ?

    I am concerned that the photo shows the Le Creuset nicely filled, but I wonder is our dish will hold that amount of Mac & Cheese.

    Show Replies (1)
  4. chris

    I like the idea of the cream cheese, definitely going to try it next time. I also gave pre-shredded the heave-ho some time back, with great results, but I’ll grab a big bag of it in a pinch. Having said all that, you had me until the breadcrumbs. This is pretty much “down home” mac and cheese the way you get it for those big holiday meals except, instead of the dreaded breadcrumbs, it’s topped with some more cheese and browned. This results in creamy, cheesy underneath a kinda crispy canopy, but I still like the cream cheese idea…

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  5. Heather Lampman

    Wow! Great recipe and I learned a few things too! Thank you! One note – I’ve found, through experience, that adding fully cooled pasta to thoroughly cooled or cold liquid or sauce keeps it from absorbing so much. This really helps to avid the dreaded “mushy pasta” problem. I’ve also found that under cooking the pasta by 2 minutes and combining cooled pasta and cooled sauce is helpful when freezing mac and cheese .

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Kraft mac and cheese - a silver spoon is scooping homemade mac and cheese our of a white casserole dishCreamy Baked Mac and Cheese