Ah – comfort food. Hot, filling, and made up of flavors you remember from childhood. That’s the secret behind this Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese.
And it’s even better when it’s homemade and free of all the preservatives and artificial colors that are routinely added to our usual comfort foods. Take the Kraft version of “Easy Mac and Cheese”:
Whey, Maltodextrin, Corn Syrup Solids, Palm Oil, Modified Food Starch, Milkfat, Salt, Milk Protein Concentrate, Medium Chain Triglyceride, Sodium Tripolyphosphate, Citric Acid, Sodium Phosphate, Natural Flavor, Lactic Acid, Calcium Phosphate, Guar Gum, Monosodium Glutamate, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Artificial Flavor, Cheese Culture, Enzymes.
Some of this is present in all cheese (cheese culture, enzymes), but the rest? We can do better. Way better. This Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese is made with all-natural ingredients, uses things you most likely have on hand right now, and produces a rich, creamy main dish you can serve with confidence.
Why Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese?
When making macaroni and cheese, you have a choice right at the beginning – stovetop version or baked version. The stovetop version might be a little shorter, but I prefer the baked version, topped with buttery, toasted bread crumbs. I think you will, too.
An added benefit of oven-baking is that you can prepare a large batch to freeze in pans. This is a technique we learned long ago, to have ready for an emergency, or to help out a neighbor going through a rough patch. If it’s comfort food for you, it will be for others as well.
The Possibilities are Endless.
With that direction settled, then it’s just the basic process: Make a cheese sauce, partially cook some pasta, mix the two together, top with crumbs and bake until set. Within that boundary, go crazy! Use whatever cheese you have on hand. Add some protein, like imitation crab meat shown here, or even browned and drained hamburger or sausage. Mix up the spices. Add some Mexican Tajin to the breadcrumbs mixture on the topping. There are a million variations you can try. And all of them will have your family asking for real macaroni and cheese rather than the boxed, over-processed version.
This recipe makes a huge amount, but it freezes really well. I use foil pans from the dollar store, wrap one in foil, then plastic wrap, and freeze for up to two months. Just remove, and bake at 350F for an hour. OR – the recipe can easily be cut in half – it works fine just as it is.
You can add protein to the dish – just make sure it’s fully cooked before adding, as the temperature reached in baking will not cook meats or fish to a proper temperature. Be sure to drain well before adding!
If you’re looking to “elevate” the dish, use a combination of sharp cheddar with Gruyere cheese, and add about 8 oz of cooked lobster or crabmeat. For the kids, use their favorite cheese and add chicken. Let me know what variations you came up with – the possibilities are endless!
For grating 6 cups of cheese, nothing beats a good food processor. Here are some good choices from Amazon:
Oven Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- 8 tbsp Butter 6 for the sauce, 2 for the bread crumbs
- 6 slices Bread torn into 1/4 – 1/2″ pieces
- 5 1/2 cups Milk
- 1/2 cup Flour all-purpose
- 2 tsp Salt
- 1/4 tsp Nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp Black Pepper
- 1/2 tsp Cayenne Pepper
- 24 oz Cheese grated, about 6 cups
- 1 lb Elbow Macaroni
- Preheat oven to 375F. Grease a large 3-quart or 2, 1 1/2 qt baking dishes. (I use 2 foil pans from the dollar store – one for serving immediately, and one for wrapping in foil and freezing.
- Cook the macaroni in a large pot of salted water until almost done – not crunchy, but not to where you would serve it. Drain well, return to pan over heat and stir just until it wants to start to stick to the bottom. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan large enough to hold your bread crumbs. Add the crumbs and toss to coat. Set aside.
- Heat the milk over medium heat until just steaming but don’t let it boil.
- In a large pot or deep skillet, melt the remaining butter until hot and bubbling. Add the flour and whisk steadily for a little over a minute, until it begins to smell nutty and cooked.
- As you continue to whisk, add the hot milk to the butter/flour mixture. Cook for a few more minutes until the mixture turns thick and bubbly.
- Remove from heat and stir in the salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne. Add 4 cups of the cheeses (reserving 2 cups for topping) and stir to melt until smooth and creamy.
- Pour the mac and cheese into your prepared dish(es).
- Top first with the remaining cheese, then the bread crumbs.
- Bake until the crumbs are browned – about 30 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.
If you’re looking for more make-ahead-and-freeze recipes, try out my Kansas Bierocks recipe.
What did you think? Leave me a note to let me know how it worked out for you.
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