Classic baked mac and cheese is a comfort food favorite. The cheesiest sauce mixed with pasta, layered with tomatoes & cheese makes this an instant winner.
Mac and cheese is the kind of recipes mothers across the world fall back on when they need to feed their families because a) it’s easy and cost effective and b) there are very few people who can say no to a good macaroni cheese.
My mom used to make an intensely cheesy macaroni and cheese when I was little. She grated an entire block of cheddar into the bechamel sauce before adding cooked pasta and layering with sliced tomatoes and even more cheese. I remember how excited I would get when macaroni and cheese was for dinner. Can you blame me?
How to make baked mac and cheese?
The best mac and cheese is made with a bechamel sauce mixed with par-boiled pasta before baking. Mix butter and flour in a medium saucepan to form a roux then whisk in milk. Season with salt, pepper and spices then add grated cheese and stir until smooth. Stir in par-cooked pasta (it will continue cooking while baking) and cream then layer with sliced tomatoes and more cheese. Bake until golden brown then allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing and serving.
What cheese to use?
Strong flavored cheese work well as you want to be able to get the big cheese flavor in every bite. Good melting cheeses like mozzarella, raclette and fontina are good for adding that ooey-gooey cheesiness to any mac and cheese recipe. The best cheese for macaroni and cheese are:
- Strong, mature cheddar.
- Aged Pecorino.
How do you make mac and cheese tasty?
Bechamel sauce is a blank canvas for flavor and you can add delicious flavor to macaroni cheese by seasoning the sauce with good, strong cheese and spices that compliment the flavor of the cheese. Cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, mustard and nutmeg all work exceptionally well in a cheese sauce.
Freezing and making ahead
- Freezing: Assemble the pasta and cheese sauce in a foil container. Press a piece of parchment paper onto the surface of the macaroni then wrap tightly in a layer of plastic wrap and then in a layer of foil. Freeze for up to 3 months. Remove all the wrapping and bake from frozen for 60-90 minutes until warmed through and bubbling.
- Make ahead: Mac and cheese is a great make ahead recipe. The entire dish can be assembled and kept covered in the fridge for up to 2 days before baking. Alternatively, make the cheese sauce and keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
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Classic baked mac and cheese
For the cheese sauce
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup flour
- 2-3 cups milk
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1-2 tsp mustard powder depending on preference
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- 2 cups grated mature cheddar
- ½ cup grated Parmesan
For the baked mac and cheese
- 1 kg (2lbs) macaroni par-cooked + reserve 1 cup of cooking water
- ¾ cup whipping/heavy cream
- 2-3 cups grated mozzarella cheese
- 6 tomatoes thinly sliced
- salt and pepper
- Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour.
- Whisk until smooth then slowly pour in the milk, a little at a time. (I always reserve approximately ½ cup milk. Some flours will absorb more/less liquid so you might not need all of it and sometimes after adding cheese I like to thin out the sauce just a little with the remaining milk.)
- Whisk continuously until the sauce is thick then turn down the heat, add the spices and allow to simmer, stirring, until the sauce is thick and cooked through (this takes around 7-10 minutes on a gentle heat).
- Once the sauce is cooked (the sauce will be completely smooth tasting with no flouriness) remove from the heat and add the cheddar and Parmesan. Stir until melted then season to taste.
- Combine the cheese sauce with the pasta then add the cream and 1 cup of mozzarella cheese. Stir and add some of the reserved pasta cooking water to thin out the sauce. You want the mac and cheese to be very creamy before going into the oven.
- Layer the macaroni with the sliced tomatoes and remaining mozzarella, seasoning every layer of tomatoes.
- Place in the oven and allow to bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and crispy.
- Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.