Creamy Baked Mac & Cheese – Creamy cheese sauce is added to pasta, topped with more shredded cheese and then baked. The best macaroni and cheese you’ll ever have!
If there’s something I’ve learned as a cook and self-proclaimed recipe researcher for almost 15 years, it’s that almost everyone has their own go-to recipe for the American food staples. And they all think theirs is the best. This is true for chocolate chip cookies, chili, grilled cheese, mashed potatoes, and today’s recipe….mac and cheese!
There are so many different ways to make macaroni and cheese. So when I went searching for a great mac and cheese recipe, I had some trouble narrowing it down. Every recipe was slightly different from the last. Yet, every single one claimed to be the best.
The main thing I managed to grasp from my search was that everyone has their own feelings about mac and cheese. Some love creamy cheese from a box, others want pure, shredded cheddar cheese.
Some love a cheesy crust on top, other want a crispy breadcrumb crust.
Some want a creamy stovetop mac and cheese, other want a baked mac and cheese.
Some like a classic elbow shape, others may want a penne or shells or, heck, even a rotini. The madness!
So what do I want? Here are my must-haves for a great mac and cheese:
- It has to be real cheese (sorry Velveeta fans!) and it (usually) has to be more than one kind of cheese. I don’t think the cheese flavor I crave can be carried by just one cheese.
- I love me a cheesy crust on top. I used to be a fan of the buttery breadcrumbs on top, but now it just gets in the way. I want all cheese and only cheese! Plus, that cheese on top just adds a level of gooeyness that is unmatched. Yummmmm.
- Stovetop mac and cheese used to be the only mac and cheese I knew. It wasn’t until I ate at my first BBQ joint that I tried the baked stuff. And I am never going back to the creamy stovetop! NEVER! Baked mac and cheese just has more bite and texture. And I am all about the texture.
- And last but not least, the pasta shape. I am bored of the elbow shape. Shells are so-so, but they just don’t hold up like a longer pasta does. So I was between a penne or a ziti. Until I saw the cavatappi (also called fusilli rigati) and I knew instantly that it was the one. It’s a longer pasta than the shells or elbow, about the length of penne. But it is a spiral shape. That shape, along with the textured exterior and hollow center make it perfect for holding all that creamy, cheesy sauce that we’ll make. That means, more cheese in every bite. Yes!
As soon as I saw this recipe from Cafe Delites, I knew it was the recipe I wanted. It looked so gooey and cheesy that I just couldn’t resist it.
She made her mac and cheese with a basic béchamel sauce (which is just a fancy word for cream sauce), added cheese and pasta, and then baked it. However, she did top hers with breadcrumbs so I decided to make it anyways and just adjust it a bit.
I also changed out the cheeses and the pasta shape. She made hers with mozzarella, cheddar cheese, and Parmesan but I switched out the mozzarella for monterey jack. She used a classic elbow shape, whereas I would be using the best shape ever, cavatappi.
A couple tips before starting:
- I always, always, always recommend that you freshly shred your cheese instead of buying it already shredded. There are additives in the shredded cheese to keep them from melding back together. So I find that cheese tastes and melts much better when it’s freshly shredded. The only exception to this is for Parmesan. Grating Parmesan by hand is one of the most annoying things I have ever done in the kitchen. Even worse that sifting flour (gets everywhere) or trying to measure a tablespoon of honey (gets stuck in the spoon). It took forever, people. So I recommend just buying a good-quality grated Parmesan from the deli section. Not worth the hassle of doing it yourself.
- I usually recommend that you use full-fat milk for any béchamel sauce so that it thickens well. The fat in whole milk and cream helps that happen. But for this recipe, you can use skim milk if you want. Yes, I said skim milk! I was shocked too. You won’t need full-fat milk because we add a corn starch slurry (corn starch and milk whisked together) to help thicken the béchamel up.
- I use garlic powder for this recipe instead of minced garlic so that it mixes better into the sauce. I didn’t want chunks of garlic all up in my creamy cheese sauce. But if you don’t have garlic powder, feel free to use minced garlic. I suggest about 4 cloves for this recipes.
- Don’t be afraid to make this dish your own! If you want a different pasta shape, change it out. If you don’t want Parmesan, just add more cheddar. If you want a breadcrumb crust, go for it!
Check out the full recipe below to make this for yourself. I hope you love it as much as we do!
What are your must-haves for a great mac and cheese? Let me know in the comments below. I know we all have them!
Here are all the kitchen tools and serveware that I used in this post. For each item that is sold, I receive a small commission. Thank you for supporting the brands that support CPA!
Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese
- 1 pound dry pasta small (macaroni, penne, ziti, etc)
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 1/4 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1/4 cup flour
- 4 1/2 cups milk any kind (I used 2 %)
- 1 tablespoons corn starch
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper (or more to taste)
- 8 ounces cheddar cheese
- 8 ounces monterey jack cheese
- 4 ounces Parmesan cheese grated
- Boil pasta in a pot of salted water according to box directions until it is right at al dente! We are going to bake the mac and cheese so more so you don't want it to be overcooked or it will get mushy. Strain when done. Set aside while we make the cheese sauce.
- Prepare your casserole dish by greasing it with cooking spray or butter. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Grate cheddar cheese and monterey jack cheeses and place into a medium bowl. Add Parmesan cheese. Split into two bowls: 1/3 of the cheese mixture into one bowl and 2/3 of the cheese mixture in another bowl. Set aside.
- Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic powder and flour. Whisk for 2 minutes. It should begin to thicken. This is the roux. It will make the sauce super thick and delicious.
- Reduce heat to medium low and gradually add 4 cups of the milk (leave 1/4 cup for the corn starch slurry), about 1/4 cup at a time, whisking between each addition. Once all the milk is added, increase heat to medium so that the sauce begins to boil and thicken.
- While the milk sauce is heating to a boil, make the corn starch slurry. This will help the sauce thicken even more. We need this since we're not using a heavy cream or high-fat milk. To make the slurry, mix corn starch with remaining 1/4 cup of milk until the lumps are gone. Add this to the milk mixture.
- Keep whisking sauce until it has thickened to almost the texture of a gravy. Add salt and pepper. Taste it to make sure it tastes right. Add more seasoning if needed.
- Once thickened, remove from heat. Add the 2/3 of the cheese mixture and stir. The heat of the sauce will melt the cheese and make a delicious cheese sauce.
- Once the cheese has melted into the sauce, add the cooked pasta and combine. Give it a taste to make sure you have enough seasoning.
- Add mac and cheese to the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese all over the top. Place in preheated oven to reheat and melt the cheese on top, about 15 minutes. If you want a crispier top, let it keep cooking until about 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let it cool for a couple minutes before serving.