With Memorial Day slowly approaching, I’m getting exited for yummy comfort foods like this Ultimate Baked Mac & Cheese. This is the perfect mac and cheese for those of you who like to enjoy a big bowl for dinner and absolutely nothing else and that’s 100 percent okay! It’s beautifully flavored, creamy and cheesy, with a crisp garlic and herb panko crust on top! After finishing a plate of this Ultimate Mac & Cheese you will either be licking your plate or going for seconds… even thirds. I won’t judge!
Macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes that seems super easy to make, but many people can’t get it right. I’ve been testing different versions of mac and cheese for YEARS. With egg, without it, different cheese combos… all of that. I can finally say that I’ve found our family’s new go to recipe. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with baked mac and cheese. Like, I’ve had a few good ones in my day, but I’ve also had my fair share of mushy, bland, and dry mac and cheese haha. I think it’s because I never wrote down the recipe. I would just wing it, which I have learned you cannot do with mac and cheese.
KEYS TO MAKING CREAMY BAKED MAC AND CHEESE
- Slightly undercook the noodles–I like to take the noodles out about 1-2 minutes before they hit al dente. This allows them to soften more during the baking time without becoming a soggy, and just nasty.
- Make extra sauce- adding extra liquid to my usual stovetop mac and cheese sauce helped prevent the noodles from becoming dry during the baking process.
- Use heavy cream in the sauce. This isn’t 100% necessary, but you can use cream instead of milk which will make a difference in richness and creaminess.
- Add extra cheese to the top prior to adding the panko crust on top- more cheese is never a bad thing.
WHAT CHEESES SHOULD I USE FOR MACARONI AND CHEESE?
- I always recommend starting with a base of sharp cheddar. It melts well and has fantastic flavor. I also recommend using mozzarella cheese, that creates those strings of melty cheese that we all love.
- From there, it’s really personal preference, but my favorite combination is sharp cheddar, mozzarella, smoked paprika and fontina. This combo was very creamy and had a classic flavor that appeals to both kids and adults. With that being said, there are plenty of other options depending on your mood or personal tastes or what you have in the fridge.
- NEVER use pre-shredded cheeses. Many of them have a starch coating on them that inhibits melting and can prevent your sauce from becoming creamy.
The Ultimate Baked Mac & Cheese
- 6 Tablespoons Butter
- 3 Cups Heavy cream
- 1 Tablespoon Kosher salt
- 1- 1/2 Tablespoon Garlic powder
- 1 Teaspoon Black pepper
- 1 Teaspoon Dry mustard (optional, can also use plain yellow mustard)
- 1/2 Teaspoon Smoked paprika
- 1/4 Cup Sour cream (optional)
- 1 lb Cavatappi noodles (can use noodles of your choice)
- 1/2 Cup Panko breadcrumbs
- 3-4 Tablespoons Fresh chopped parsley
- 2 Cups Shreded sharp cheddar cheese
- 2 Cups Shredded fontina cheese
- 2 Cups Shreded mozzarella cheese
- 1 Cup Smoked gouda cheese
- 1/2 Cup Boursin cheese (optional)
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
- Butter a 9×13 baking dish and set to the side.
- Cook your pasta according to package. Be sure to season water with plenty of salt (about a tablespoon) for about 4 to 5 minutes. You want it slightly undercooked because it will continue to cook in the oven when you bake it. Drain and pour into the greased baking dish.
- In a sauce pot, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When it starts to foam and bubble, add the flour and immediately whisk so that it forms a roux (paste). Allow this to cook for about 1 minute to get the “raw” flour taste out.
- Slowly add 2 cups of the heavy cream while whisking constantly to remove any large lumps. Continue to whisk until smooth and thick. Add the remaining cup of heavy cream and continue to whisk until smooth. Increase the heat to medium-high to allow the sauce to thicken, about 4-5 minutes (be sure to watch or it will overflow and burn). Season the sauce with kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika and dry mustard while it thickens and taste as you go.
- Once your sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, add in the cheddar cheese, fontina, mozzarella, gouda and boursin cheese and turn the head back down to medium. Continue to whisk and taste to adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove from the heat.
- Season noodles in the pan with black pepper, garlic powder, and smoked paprika. Add some of the cheese sauce to the pasta along with sour cream and mix well. Mix in cheddar cheese. This is where you can sort of “eyeball” your cheese portions. Use more or less, it’s totally up to you. Too much cheese can be a problem because it’ll make it too oily and clumpy, so don’t go too crazy with the cheese.
- Don’t panic! If there’s more sauce than pasta, that’s totally fine, add more if necessary. Remember, you don’t want your pasta to dry out in the oven. You want it smooth and creamy, but not incredibly soupy like.
- Smooth the mixture with the back of a spoon so that it’s pretty even on top. Sprinkle a thin layer of cheddar cheese on top.
- In a small bowl melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the microwave on 10 seconds or less, just so that it is slightly melted (be sure to watch so that it doesn’t overflow). Add in panko, garlic powder, kosher salt and pepper and mix well. Sprinkle on top of the pasta for an amazing crunch.
- Bake on the center rack of your oven for about 20 to 30 minutes or until the center is bubbly and the entire dish is light golden brown.
- Let it cool for about 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy!