Four Cheese Baked Mac and Cheese with Garlic Breadcrumbs

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.

two gratins of baked macaroni and cheese on a sheet pan

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

a pan of pasta with sauce and a pan of toasted breadcrumbs

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.

Ingredients

milk and flour container with whiskThe ingredient list is made up mostly of 🧀 . And that feels right, right?

Bechamel Ingredients

  • 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.

Cheese Blend

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.

two gratins of macaroni and cheese and a pan of crumbs.
A balanced blend of 4 cheeses (one in the bread crumb topping) makes for a flavorful macaroni and cheese.

The best 4 cheese combo:

  1. Sharp yellow cheddar – for color and flavor
  2. 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.
  3. Balsamic or Merlot cheese (Costco and most grocers carry this Merlot Cheese by Bella Vitano – worth finding!)
  4. Parmesan (in the bread crumb topping) adds a salty flavor.


TIP

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

adding flour to skillet of butter
1. Make a roux with flour and butter and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes to cook out the flavor of the flour.
skillet of bechamel for four cheese mac and cheese
2. Stir until incorporated and melted. This is how it should look before you add the milk.
Adding milk to roux for 4 cheese mac and cheese
3. Add whole milk to skillet, whisking the whole time until the roux is incorporated.
Finished pan of bechamel sauce
4. The finished bechamel before you add the cheeses.
pot of white sauce with cheese and a wooden spatula.
5. Stir in grated cheeses into bechamel.
a pan of pasta with sauce and a pan of toasted breadcrumbs.
6. Add pasta to four cheese sauce and stir to combine.
Skillet of cheese bread crumbs for mac and cheese
7. Make the bread crumbs by sauteeing the crumbs in butter and adding garlic. Stir in cheese off the heat.
Gratin dish of unbaked mac and cheese with bread crumbs
8. Top sauced mac and cheese with bread crumbs and bake in individual gratin dishes or a 9×13″ casserole dish.

SERVING IDEA

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

a forkful of macaroni and cheese with two dishes of macaroni and cheese.
  • Use butter and heavy cream for the creamiest texture unless it’s not possible. You can substitute whole milk for the cream but please don’t substitute margarine for the butter. You will lose flavor and texture.
  • Dot extra butter on top of the bread crumbs before baking. This adds extra crispy pockets of texture.
  • Taste your sauce for seasoning before tossing with the pasta. Add more salt and pepper as needed.
  • Stir in all cheeses with either a wooden spoon both in the sauce and for the topping off the heat. Since wooden spoons don’t conduct heat, this avoids any clumping in the pan or burning the sauce at the bottom of the pan.

Make ahead, serving and storage tips

Make ahead

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.

Storage

Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Reheat

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?

I’d love it if you’d share your review and leave a star rating and comment!


two gratins of baked macaroni and cheese on a sheet pan.
5 from 8 votes

Mac n’ Cheese with Breadcrumbs

The last word on mac n' cheese, this cheesy recipe with a crispy top is the perfect party recipe or partner to beef, chicken or barbecue. Adapted from Epicurious.
Prep Time:20 minutes
Cook Time:45 minutes
Total Time:1 hour 5 minutes
Servings 10

Ingredients
 

Topping

Béchamel

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.

Topping

  • 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.

Béchamel

  • 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.

Notes

  • 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.
Storage. Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 3 days. Freeze for up to 3 months.
Make ahead. Don’t top with the breadcrumbs. Make those the day you plan to serve it.
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.
 
Course: Main Course, meatless, Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Author: Lori Murphy
Did you make this recipe? Tag @josieandnina or tag #josieandnina!

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14 Comments

  1. Brought a double batch of this mac n cheese to a family Christmas open house. Trying to grab the casserole dish as we were walking out the door and wasn’t allowed to leave until every last forkful was consumed. This really is THE BEST mac n cheese ever!

    1. Oh I love this so much Mary! I really could sit down and probably eat half a pan of this myself and so glad you all enjoyed it to the last forkful! Merry Christmas!♥️

  2. This was incredible. A bit too cheesy for me which made it salty tasting. I used whole milk instead of creamer and a bit more flour for consistently. Next time I going to cut the cheaters in half.

  3. What are your thoughts on making this 1 day ahead of when you’ll be serving it…. Pros/Cons? I’m worried about pasta being too soft maybe????5 stars

    1. Yes absolutely Martha!! And you’ve reminded me to add it to the post. I typically make sure to undercook the pasta and make everything but the breadcrumbs. The next day, I make those. Pull it out 30 minutes before it needs to go into the oven to take the chill off. And then sprinkle on the breadcrumbs right before baking! Hope that helps and thanks so much for the question!🤗

    1. Thanks Abbey! The worcestershire adds a nice little bite for sure. I want to try it with chickpea noodles – let me know how the GF work out. Enjoy!!

  4. First, I love the name of this recipe! It makes me want to make it that much more! This looks delicious, and I love all the tips you incorporate throughout the story. Can’t wait to try this!5 stars

    1. Hahaha – thank you – it really would be my last meal. It’s a staple for holidays around here for sure. And so happy you like the tips 😀