Who says comfort food can't be elegant? I've taken a classic macaroni and cheese recipe and elevated it to new heights, infusing it with a burst of fresh summer flavors. The cheesy, creamy sauce gets an aromatic lift from freshly chopped basil and parsley, which pairs perfectly with the rich blend of cheddar and mozzarella. But it's the baked Parmesan and panko breadcrumb crust that really steals the show, adding a delightful crunch to every bite. This dish is sure to be a hit at your next summer barbecue, family gathering, or even for a weeknight dinner when you just need a little extra comfort.
Making this dish is a breeze, and I guarantee it will up your mac and cheese game forever. You start by crafting a simple roux-based sauce, then amp up the creaminess with two types of cheese and a touch of Dijon mustard for depth. After you fold in your al dente pasta and transfer everything to a baking dish, the breadcrumb mixture takes center stage. Just a quick bake in the oven, and voila! You've got a comforting but sophisticated dish that serves up well as both a main course and a side dish. Trust me, after trying this baked macaroni and cheese, you'll wonder how you ever settled for the boxed variety.
How to Make Homemade Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- Preheat the Oven: First, I set my oven to 375°F (190°C) and position the rack in the middle. A consistent and well-calibrated oven ensures even baking and that delectable golden crust.
- Cook the Macaroni: I bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil before adding the elbow macaroni. I cook it for a minute less than the package instructions indicate, because it will continue to cook in the oven later.
- Create the Roux: Over medium heat, I melt the butter in a saucepan until it’s foamy but not browned. Then I whisk in the flour, cooking for 1-2 minutes. This process removes the raw flour taste and forms the base for our smooth sauce.
- Whisk in the Milk: Slow and steady wins the race. I slowly add the milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. I keep whisking until the sauce noticeably thickens and coats the back of a spoon, usually taking about 5 minutes.
- Cheese Time: I turn off the heat and add the shredded cheddar and mozzarella, stirring until the cheese completely melts into a silky sauce. A little trick? I sometimes use a figure-8 motion with my spoon for effective blending.
- Flavor Boost: I add a spoonful of Dijon mustard for a little zing, along with freshly chopped parsley and basil for a touch of summer freshness. A quick taste test lets me adjust the salt and pepper to my liking.
- Combine with Macaroni: I pour the cooked and drained macaroni into the cheese sauce and gently fold it in, ensuring that each piece is well-coated. I love how the sauce seeps into the hollows of the elbow macaroni.
- Prepare the Baking Dish: I grease my baking dish with either a thin layer of butter or cooking spray, making sure to get into the corners. This ensures easy serving and clean-up.
- The Topping: In a separate bowl, I mix together panko breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. I even drizzle a small amount of melted butter over the mixture; it helps the breadcrumbs crisp up when baking. I sprinkle this evenly over the macaroni mixture for that contrasting crunchy texture.
- Bake: I place the dish in the preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes. I keep a close eye during the last 5 minutes. What I'm looking for is a top that's golden brown, with a few spots of cheese sauce bubbling up around the edges.
- Cool and Serve: I allow it to sit for about 5-10 minutes after pulling it out of the oven. This not only prevents a burned mouth but also gives the cheese sauce a chance to thicken up a bit more.
Ingredient Substitutions - Macaroni and Cheese
Whether you're accommodating dietary restrictions or simply working with what you've got in your pantry, substitutions can be a lifesaver. Here's how you can swap out some ingredients without compromising on the yum-factor of your baked macaroni and cheese:
- Gluten-Free: Use gluten-free pasta if you're avoiding gluten. Just be extra careful not to overcook it, as gluten-free pasta can get mushy.
- Whole Wheat: For a healthier spin, whole wheat elbow macaroni works just as well.
- Vegan Cheese: Dairy-free? No worries, there are plenty of vegan cheeses that melt well and can be used in the sauce.
- Gruyère or Fontina: Want to go gourmet? These cheeses offer a different but equally delicious flavor profile.
- Plant-Based Milk: Almond, oat, or soy milk can be used for a dairy-free version. Opt for the unsweetened, unflavored varieties.
- Heavy Cream: For an even richer sauce, replace half of the milk with heavy cream.
- Crushed Crackers: No panko breadcrumbs? Crushed Ritz or saltine crackers also make for a great crunchy topping.
- Gluten-Free Breadcrumbs: These are widely available and can be used in a one-to-one ratio with regular breadcrumbs for a gluten-free crust.
Tips and Tricks for the Perfect Mac and Cheese
Cheese Choices: The blend of cheddar and mozzarella in this recipe provides a perfect balance of sharpness and meltiness. But don't limit yourself! Try incorporating other cheeses like Gruyère for a nutty flavor or smoked gouda for a touch of smokiness. The key is to choose cheeses that melt well.
Pasta Pointers: The type and cooking time of your pasta can make a big difference. I recommend cooking the pasta until it's al dente—firm but not hard—because it will continue to cook in the oven. This prevents your mac and cheese from turning mushy.
Milk Matters: The type of milk you use can significantly affect the creaminess of your sauce. Whole milk will give you the richest, most velvety sauce, but 2% milk can also work if you're trying to reduce calories. I'd avoid skim milk, as it can make the sauce less creamy.
Crisp that Crust: If your breadcrumb topping isn't crisping to your liking, a quick stint under the broiler can work wonders. But be cautious: set a timer for 1-2 minutes and keep a close eye on it to avoid burning.
Spice it Up: A dash of paprika or a sprinkle of cayenne pepper can add a warm, spicy kick to your cheese sauce. Start with a small amount and taste as you go, so it doesn't overpower the other flavors.
Sauce Consistency: If you find that your cheese sauce is too thick, don't worry. While the sauce is still on the stove, you can whisk in an extra splash of milk to reach your desired consistency. Make sure to add it slowly and keep stirring for a smooth texture.
- Preparation: If you plan to freeze your mac and cheese, consider undercooking the pasta slightly, as it will soften when reheated. Cool the dish to room temperature before freezing.
- Packaging: Divide the mac and cheese into portion-sized containers or place it in one large, airtight container. Make sure to leave a little space at the top to allow for expansion during freezing.
- Storage: Seal the container well to prevent freezer burn. You can store the dish in the freezer for up to 3 months for best quality.
- Cooling: Allow the mac and cheese to come to room temperature before placing it in the refrigerator. This helps prevent condensation, which can make the dish soggy.
- Containers: Use airtight containers to store the dish in the fridge. You can keep it for up to 4 days.
- Separate Toppings: If possible, store any extra breadcrumb topping separately in a zip-top bag. This keeps it crisp and allows you to add fresh topping upon reheating.
- Oven Method: Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Place the mac and cheese in an oven-safe dish and cover it with aluminum foil. Bake for 20–25 minutes or until heated through. If you've stored extra breadcrumb topping, sprinkle it on in the last 5 minutes of reheating.
- Microwave Method: For smaller portions, the microwave works well. Place the mac and cheese in a microwave-safe container and add a splash of milk to help revive the creaminess. Cover and heat on 50% power, stirring every minute until heated through.
- Stovetop Method: If you prefer, you can reheat the mac and cheese in a saucepan over low heat. Add a splash of milk and stir frequently to prevent sticking. Heat until the dish reaches your desired temperature.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 8 ounces elbow macaroni
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh basil chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C).
- Cook the macaroni according to the package instructions, but slightly undercook it. Drain and set aside.
- In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes until it forms a paste.
- Slowly whisk in the milk, ensuring there are no lumps. Continue whisking until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the shredded cheddar and mozzarella cheese. Stir until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth.
- Stir in the Dijon mustard, fresh parsley, and basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the cooked macaroni to the cheese sauce, stirring until the pasta is well coated.
- Transfer the macaroni and cheese mixture to a greased baking dish.
- In a small bowl, combine the panko breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the macaroni and cheese.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden brown and crispy.
- Remove from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes before serving.
Macaroni and Cheese - FAQ
While pre-shredded cheese is convenient, it often contains anti-caking agents that can make the sauce less smooth. For the creamiest sauce, I recommend shredding your own cheese.
You can use low-fat milk, but the sauce won't be as rich and creamy. For best results, I recommend using whole milk or at least 2% milk.
Crushed Ritz or saltine crackers make an excellent substitute. You can also use regular breadcrumbs, though they won't be as crispy as panko.
Graininess can occur for a few reasons, such as overheating the sauce or using cheese that doesn't melt well. To avoid this, remove the sauce from the heat before adding the cheese and stir until it's smoothly incorporated.
Absolutely! Cooked bacon, ham, or even sautéed vegetables like spinach or mushrooms can add extra flavor and texture. Just make sure to cook any additions thoroughly before mixing them into the pasta and cheese sauce.