Stop the search for the best macaroni and cheese recipe! Rich, creamy, cheesy thanks to the perfect blend of four cheeses, this mac and cheese with breadcrumbs recipe starts with a classic bechamel sauce. A crunchy topping of garlic breadcrumbs and you have the best meatless Monday pasta recipe or perfect partner for your holiday ham.
I have been on hot pursuit of the best macaroni and cheese recipe forever. As in FOR-E-VERRR (like how they say in “forever in The Sandlot”.) If I could have a fork and a whole pan of this four cheese mac and cheese, I’d be one very happy girl. Ok…maybe I’d also have an arugula and lemon salad for some green stuff.
Why this recipe
Three reasons (and most are about texture):
- Creamy. The key to the dish is the béchamel and the cheese combo. And don’t be scared by the word “béchamel” – it’s just fancy talk for white sauce. Béchamel is the base for the sauce —and I’ve got the best Basic Bechamel recipe.
- Crunchy. The garlic and parmesan cheese breadcrumbs on top add a crispy texture and a salty, zesty flavor that is irresistible.
- Springy al dente pasta. I find that a springy noodle like a rotini or the fancy fusilli corti bucati pictured here works best because you need hidden channels for the sauce to cling. And cling it does in the best way.
The ingredient list is made up mostly of 🧀 . And that feels right, right?
- heavy cream (necessary for the creaminess. If you lessen it or leave it out, your macaroni and cheese will not be as creamy.)
- milk (which I have lightened a bit by using a heavier amount of 1% milk. )
Note: the sauce is meant to be on the thinner side for this recipe and will thicken up as it cooks with the cheese combo.
The key to making the a really flavorful macaroni and cheese is all selecting the right kinds of cheese. You want one that’s creamier, one that has a sharper flavor, one that’s a little saltier and (most of the time) a cheese with a little more color.
The best 4 cheese combo:
- Sharp yellow cheddar – for color and flavor
- Extra sharp white cheddar – for tang. Extra sharp cheddar is aged longer and has a dryer texture than mild cheddar. You might notice that when you bite into a more aged cheddar cheese, you feel almost a gritty, sandy texture which is the crystals that develop from the acid in the cheese as it ages.
- Balsamic or Merlot cheese (Costco and most grocers carry this Merlot Cheese by Bella Vitano – worth finding!)
- Parmesan (in the bread crumb topping) adds a salty flavor.
If you like a more traditional orange mac n’cheese, adjust the recipe and use a lot more yellow sharp cheddar.-Josie + Nina
Don’t skip these
Two ingredients that each add a zip of flavor and also color to mac and cheese are:
- Mustard powder. Don’t eliminate this one. It adds more color and flavor and your mac and cheese will totally miss both.
- Worcestershire. Adds that touch of umami and that “what is that flavor” note.
How to make four cheese mac and cheese
Make a half recipe and bake in individual gratins on a baking sheet as shown above. Sprinkle over 1/4 of the crumb recipe.-Josie + Nina
Tips for the creamiest, golden macaroni and cheese
Make ahead, serving and storage tips
Make the recipe up to 2 days ahead but don’t top with the breadcrumbs. Make those the day you plan to serve it.
You can also make the pan and freeze it up to 1 month ahead without the breadcrumbs. Defrost completely in the fridge overnight. Top with breadcrumbs before baking.
Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Add a little milk to the leftovers and heat in the microwave in 30 second increments until warmed through. Stir mixing in the breadcrumbs.
Made this recipe?
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Mac n’ Cheese with Breadcrumbs
- 6 TBSP butter
- 6 TBSP flour
- 1 ¼ cup heavy cream
- 3 ½ cup 2% milk
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp pepper, can use white pepper
- 1 ½ TBSP mustard powder
- 1 tsp worcestershire sauce
- 2 ½ cups sharp yellow cheddar, grated
- 2 ½ cups white extra sharp cheddar, grated, I use Cabot
- 1 cup Merlot or Balsamic cheese, grated, Bella Vitano from Costo
- 1 lb cavatappi, fusilli or rotini pasta, or your favorite pasta with curves
- Preheat oven to 400°.
- Butter a 9×13 baking or casserole dish and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Heavily salt water and cook pasta according to package directions but reduce the cooking time by about 25%.
- Drain pasta in a colander and set aside.
- Melt 2 T of butter in medium skillet on medium and add olive oil. Heat until the foam subsides from the butter. Add the minced garlic and panko or breadcrumbs. Toss gently to coat the crumbs.
- Continue to stir crumbs in pan to make sure they don’t burn and cook until golden brown about 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat.
- Add Parmesan and salt off heat and stir to incorporate. Set aside.
- In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. As it is melting, add the flour and stir continually to form a thick paste or roux. Cook for 2 minutes or so to cook out the flour taste.
- Slowly add milk and cream while whisking slowly to avoid clumping from the roux. Continue stirring and cooking until the sauce reaches a low boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally so the sauce keeps moving and doesn’t burn. Cook for approximately five minutes until the sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon.
- Turn off the heat. Add the cheese in handfuls stirring after each addition, making sure it has melted before adding more.
- Stir in mustard powder, salt and pepper and worcestershire.
- Add pasta to sauce pan and stir to evenly coat the pasta with the sauce. It’s ok if the sauce is on the thinner side. It should be the consistency of a smooth gravy. It’ll thicken while it bakes.
- Pour the pasta into a 9 x 13 pan. Top with crumb mixture. Resist the urge to overdo it. Place the pan on a baking sheet.
- Bake for approximately 20-25 minutes until bubbly. Remove immediately and serve.
- I also drizzle the top w/2 T melted butter and cover lightly with foil about 10 minutes or so into the baking.
- If made earlier in the day, bake a little longer until bubbling in the center.
- If making in gratins or smaller portions, cover after five minutes and start checking it at 15 minutes.
Bake it covered with foil at 400˚ for an hour. Remove the foil, top with the breadcrumbs and continue baking for another 15 minutes or so.
About Lori Murphy
Lori has over 30 years in the food industry as a marketing strategist, culinary instructor and chef for three kids with discerning palates. As the chief content creator at Josie + Nina, Lori is dedicated to helping home cooks create food memories through fresh ingredients and Italian flavors.