The ultimate, creamy baked mac and cheese, for when only the best will do. This dish is comfort food perfection! Customize with your own selection of cheeses and toppings.
I don't think I've ever eaten a bad Macaroni and Cheese. Let's face it, a plate of pasta and cheese sauce going to be pretty good no matter the recipe you start with.
That said, when mac and cheese is made with great cheese and combined with a generous amount of perfectly creamy sauce, it can be a true thing of beauty and absolute comfort food perfection!
What makes this mac and cheese "ultimate"?
First, have you ever made a mac and cheese that was lovely and creamy before it went into the oven, but after it was baked, you were disappointed to find that all that creaminess disappeared? That's why you will love this version! It starts with lots of creamy cheese sauce, so even after baking, it's still wonderfully creamy.
Secondly, this mac and cheese uses great cheddar cheeses - two varieties, at least, for great depth of flavour. I've made some suggestions for some types of cheese to use and will share my favourite combination, as well. You can certainly use your favourites and experiment with different cheese, to make your own signature mac and cheese.
And finally, customize your creation with your favourite topping. I'm a fan of the Chili Cheese topping (shown here). It's cheddar cheese, tossed with Chipotle Chili Powder, for a bit of smokey heat. I've provided some other great topping options here, as well.
Choose Your Cheeses
Here's what I use and recommend ...
- Main Cheese - Start with a Mature Aged Cheddar. These will often have the word "Mature" right on the label. They are always white cheddars and you'll usually find some good choices in the gourmet cheese section of your grocery store or a nice cheese monger. This type of cheese is crumbly in texture and nutty and creamy in flavour. My favourite is called Coastal, a British mature cheddar. It is delicious and easily and widely available, too!
- Second Cheese - Add a second, Sharp Cheddar to the mix. It's a great complement to the mature cheddar and provides great depth of flavour. Again, look for the word "Sharp" on the label. Sharp cheese is usually orange. When it comes to sharp, my go-to is actually a cold-packed cheese that is widely and easily available here in Canada called Imperial Cheese (it's sold in small red containers and is usually found in with the block cheese). If this isn't available to you, just look in the cheese sections for a cheddar labelled "Sharp".
- Optional Third Cheese - If you feel so inclined, you can add a third cheddar to the mix for the bit of cheese that goes on the top. A standard medium or old cheddar would work nicely here, if you like. You can also just use more of the sharp cheese for the topping.
This combination will make a wonderfully flavourful, grown-up mac and cheese, but may not always be perfectly kid-friendly. You can certainly use more mainstream cheddar cheese options here, as well, if you like. The process is the same, just change up the cheese.
Pick your Topping
You can top your mac and cheese as you like it! Here are some great options to add before baking ...
- Add just a sprinkling of grated cheese on top.
- Toss the grated cheese with a bit of Chipotle Chili Powder for a bit of smokey heat. Adjust the amount of chili powder to taste. If you're not sure, start with a pinch and go from there.
- Toss the grated cheese with dried bread crumbs, Panko or crushed soda crackers, mixed with a little melted butter, for a crunchy topping.
Gather your ingredients and weigh out the pasta and cheese and crumble or grate the cheese. I'm using Coastal Mature white cheddar for my main cheese and adding Imperial sharp cold-packed cheese as my second cheese. For my topping, I'm using another mature cheddar called Cathedral. You can use any cheddars you like, but the better the cheese, the better the mac and cheese :)
Start a large pot of water boiling and salt well. Start the cheese sauce by melting the butter, then adding the flour. Stir into a paste and cook about 2 minutes. Add a bit of the milk and mix in, adding the rest of the milk slowly. Cook, stirring, until mixture thickens slightly and coats the back of the spoon well, about 7-8 minutes.
Add the garlic powder, chili powder and salt to the sauce and stir in. REMOVE THE POT FROM THE HEAT. Add the cheese and stir in well. Allow to stand two minutes, then stir sauce until sauce is mostly smooth (small chunks are fine). Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.
Add the drained pasta to the cheese sauce and stir well to combine. Spoon into baking dish (or dishes). Bake in preheated oven about 20 minutes, or until golden and bubbly. Enjoy!
- Always start with a block of cheese and grate or crumble it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese if often coated with an anti-clumping agent, which can affect the quality of your finished sauce.
- To ensure your macaroni doesn't get too soft, be sure to cook it 2 minutes less than you normally would, usually about 8 minutes. Rinsing well with cold water after draining will stop the cooking process and will also ensure your pasta doesn't get too soft.
- When crumbling your cheese, don't leave the crumbles too large, as they need to melt with only the residual heat from the sauce. The recommended process of turning off the heat, then adding the cheese to melt, helps to ensure the cheese doesn't become grainy and is the secret to a smooth, creamy sauce for your macaroni and cheese!
- Add a bit more salt if you need to. Taste your cheese sauce before adding the pasta and add a bit more salt if you think it needs it. Proper salting makes all the flavours here really shine.
Making Ahead, Storage and Freezing
Making Ahead: You can assemble this mac and cheese ahead, by stirring together the cooked pasta with the cheese sauce, spooning into baking dish (or dishes), then cover and refrigerate (do not add topping now). When ready to enjoy, simply add the topping and bake as directed, allowing a few extra minutes if it's cold from the fridge.
Storing: Refrigerate leftovers. They will keep well in the fridge for 3-4 days. Reheat covered loosely with plastic wrap in the microwave or covered with foil in a 350F. oven until warmed through.
Freezing: For best results, freeze after assembling and before cooking. Alternately, you can freeze it after baking. Thaw in the fridge, then baked (if un-baked before freezing) or thaw and re-heat if already baked.
Some Reviews of the great reviews of this mac and cheese ...
"Best Mac n Cheese recipe ever ! And my husband is a chef :-) !!!"
"I love this recipe. My go to. My family loves creamy mac and cheese"
"I have been making this recipe for over a year and get asked to make it frequently. It is the best recipe I have tried and works every time"
Ultimate Creamy Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 8 oz dried elbow macaroni, *see Note 1
- 1/4 cup butter, salted or unsalted. If using salted, reduce the added salt below slightly
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups whole milk, recommend whole milk here you can (3-3.5% butterfat) or you could use 2% in a pinch
- 7 oz Mature aged white cheddar, crumbled *see Note 2
- 3 oz Sharp orange cheddar, or cold-packed cheddar, grated or crumbled, about 1 cup crumbled *see Note 2
- 1/2 tsp coarse kosher salt, little less if using table salt
- 1/4 tsp chili powder, (standard chili powder you would use for a pot of chili)
- 1/8 tsp garlic powder
Cheese and Chili Topping:
- 1/2 oz sharp, aged or old cheddar cheese, grated, about 1/2 cup
- Pinch - 1/8 tsp chipotle chili powder, optional, for smokiness and heat. Adjust amount to taste, substitute paprika if you like, or just omit and just use the cheese
Crispy Cheese Topping:
- 1/2 cup Panko, dried bread crumbs or crushed soda crackers
- 3 Tbsp salted butter, melted
- 1/2 cup sharp, aged or old cheddar cheese, grated
- Bring about 8 -10 cups of water to boil in a large pot on the stove-top, over high heat. Once boiling, add a generous sprinkling of salt to the pot and add the pasta. Cook pasta for 2 minutes less than recommended on the package, or to just al dente. Drain well and rinse with cold water to stop the pasta from cooking further. *While water is boiling and pasta is cooking, you can start your cheese sauce.
- For the cheese sauce: In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and continue to whisk and cook for about 2 minutes.
- Very slowly add the milk, a little at a time, whisking constantly. Once all the milk has been added, cook, stirring frequently until the sauce thickens, about 8-10 minutes. (Don't rush this step! The mixture will not get super thick, but you will notice it thicken to the point where it will nicely coat the back of a spoon after 8-10 minutes of cooking and stirring.)
- Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the crumbled/grated cheese, salt, chili powder and garlic powder. Stir until the cheese is melted and all the ingredients are incorporated, about 3 minutes. (If the cheese isn't melted completely after about 3 minutes, you can put the pan back on low heat and stir until it is melted). Set aside for a minute while you wait for the pasta to cook.
- Preheat oven to 350F (175C) with rack in the centre of the oven. Oil or butter an 8-inch square baking dish, an 8-inch cast-iron skillet or individual baking dishes.
- Once the pasta is cook, drain, rinse with cold water and drain well again. Add it to the cheese sauce and mix gently, but thoroughly. (It might look like too much sauce/too little pasta, but trust me, it will all be good in the end). Spoon or ladle the mixture into a prepared baking dish or individual dishes. Sprinkle the top of each with either the Cheese/Chili topping ingredients or mix together the panko/breadcrumbs with the melted butter and scatter over-top.
- Bake in the preheated 350F (175C) oven uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the sauce has bubbled up around the edges and the top has a nice golden crust. Let sit for a few minutes before serving.
- If you don't have a scale to weigh out the macaroni, it is about 2 cups worth. Note that this measure will only work for macaroni and probably not a larger pasta shape. Weighing is recommended. It is important not to use too much pasta, or you will upset the pasta to sauce ratio.
- Look for cheese labelled "Mature", which is always white cheddar and sold in smaller blocks in the gourmet food section. Add to that a nice "Sharp" cheddar cheese. Again, it will usually say Sharp right on the label. It might be white or orange in colour.
Nutritional information provided for general guidance only and should not be relied upon to make personal health decisions.