You really can’t ever go wrong with mac and cheese from a box made on the stove top. However, baking your mac and cheese in casserole form does take it to a whole other level. It’s also super easy to make, even if you’re someone whose go-to is the boxed kind.
We got this recipe for baked mac and cheese from certified chef, food blogger, and recipe developer Maren Epstein of Eating Works (whose website you should check out for even more simple recipes with lots of good-for-you ingredient options). While there are lots and lots of mac and cheese recipes out there, her version only requires only ten minutes of prep work and utilizes panko bread crumbs, which add a unique crunch when you combine them with parmesan cheese to make the topping for the baked mac and cheese. You’ll need a standard 9×13-inch casserole for this oven-made concoction of pasta, breadcrumbs, and cheese.
Gather ingredients for baked mac and cheese
Before you get started, make sure you gather all the ingredients in one place so they’re ready to go. For this recipe, you’ll need one stick of butter, 16 ounces of macaroni noodles, four cups of warm milk, a half a cup of flour, half a teaspoon of cumin, a quarter teaspoon of chili powder, four tablespoons of Dijon mustard, black pepper, eight ounces of cream cheese, three cups of shredded sharp cheddar cheese, and eight ounces of shredded mozzarella cheese. Measure everything out before you start anything, so it’s ready to go with each step.
Whole milk is what Epstein uses for this baked mac and cheese recipe because she’s aiming for that "traditional mac and cheese" vibe, but other milks are not out of the question. "You can sub out any kind of milk. Oat milk would be the non-dairy milk I would use," she tells us.
Set aside ingredients for the baked mac and cheese topping
You’ll also need one cup of panko crumbs and a half cup of parmesan cheese to make the crunchy, breaded topping for the baked mac and cheese, but since you aren’t adding that till later on in the recipe, it’s fine to set them aside from the other ingredients.
In terms of panko crumbs, at the store, you’ll probably find there are lots of options out there in terms of flavor. Epstein uses Italian style for this recipe, so if you can find those, we’d go with that! Panko crumbs are unique because they are made from a specific kind of crustless, white bread through a specific process (that utilizes electrical current) that results in a flakier, airier texture. They are also often referred to as Japanese breadcrumbs.
Boil the pasta for your baked mac and cheese
Before you assemble the "casserole," you need to boil the pasta. While the recipe lists macaroni elbows as the recommended pasta type for this baked mac and cheese, Epstein insists, "You can use any type of pasta that has a lot of shape to hold the sauce. I also like using shells! Whatever you have on hand should work well!" Let’s be honest, any type of pasta mixed with cheese and breading is usually a safe bet for deliciousness.
Boil two quarts of water in a large pot. Once the water is actively boiling, add the 16 ounces of macaroni (or pasta of your choice) and allow it to cook for six minutes. Then strain the pasta in a colander and set it aside while you prepare the cheese sauce. And just in case you are wondering, there is no need to rinse the pasta after it’s been drained in the colander.
Make the baked mac and cheese sauce
After the pasta has been cooked, you’ll prepare the cheese sauce. Melt the stick of butter in a 4-quart soup pot on medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the flour. Whisk the butter and flour over low heat until there are no clumps and the roux has turned golden. According to Epstein, roux "is a fancy term for mixing butter and flour. Mixing butter and flour in a pan is a very common method used to thicken up soups and sauces." This baked mac and cheese just got gourmet.
Next, whisk the milk into the pot, one cup at a time, until the roux and milk are fully combined. Then add in the cumin, chili powder, black pepper, and mustard. Whisk again until the mustard is fully dissolved. Bring the milk to a simmer and allow to cook for five to ten minutes, basically until it reduces, so be sure to watch it carefully so the milk doesn’t burn. Turn off the flame once it’s reduced.
The final step in making the sauce is adding the sharp cheddar cheese, also one cup at a time, and whisking it until it’s melted. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot to make sure the cheese doesn’t stick to the bottom. After the cheddar has been fully incorporated, add the cream cheese and stir until combined. Then, add the mozzarella. When the mozzarella goes in, the sauce will thicken and get stringy.
Combine macaroni with cheese sauce in a casserole dish for this baked mac and cheese
The next step in this baked mac and cheese recipe is assembling the "casserole." Dump the drained pasta into the casserole dish. Then, pour the cheese sauce over the pasta and make sure it’s fully coated and covered. You can really stir it together to make sure every inch of the macaroni is covered with the cheese sauce.
If you wanted to add in any other ingredients to give this baked mac and cheese variety, now would be the time to do that. Epstein confirms, "Bacon would be great with this recipe. You can fry it up and chop it finely and mix it in to the macaroni when you combine the sauce and macaroni." We’d second that, or any other meat in the ham family that can be diced into bite-size pieces and easily mixed in with the macaroni and cheese.
Top the macaroni and cheese sauce with panko crumbs and parmesan for this baked mac and cheese
Now it’s time to bust out the parmesan cheese and panko crumbs that you set aside earlier. These finishing touches will cover the top of the baked mac and cheese before you put it in the oven to give it that nice baked finish (the kind you can’t get from a stove or microwave version of mac and cheese).
Is there a magic technique to executing this final, pre-oven step? "If you want to be a perfectionist, you can combine [the panko and parmesan] in the same bowl before applying the final topping to the casserole," says Epstein. Otherwise, it’s okay to sprinkle a layer of panko, and then, finally, sprinkle a layer of grated parmesan cheese. If you’re debating on whether to combine them prior to adding them to the mac and cheese, this is the time to ask yourself: Just how many dishes do I want to wash when this is all said and done?
Bake the mac and cheese
Finally, you can put this bad boy in the oven. Cover the casserole dish with foil and bake it in the oven for 20 minutes. Do not forget: You should remove the foil for the last five minutes of cooking to allow the cheese to brown. So maybe set a timer for 15 minutes to be safe, then another five minutes for the final stage. It’s also worth noting, the cheese will continue browning for five minutes after you’ve taken the casserole dish out of the oven. This will also give the baked mac and cheese a little time to cool off before you serve it (nobody wants to burn the roof of their mouth with piping hot cheese sauce).
In terms of doling this dish out for leftovers, Epstein says, "’I’ve kept this mac and cheese in the fridge for up to a week! I keep it right in the casserole dish I cooked it in so that I can pop it right back into the oven to reheat the left overs." Again, this is an ideal way to save yourself some precious time on dish duty.