Baked Mac N’ Cheese is the grown-up version of a childhood classic. This adult indulgence has bits of spicy jalapenos, red pepper flakes, sharp cheddar cheese, crunchy panko topping, and a secret ingredient that puts the creaminess over the top.
Awe, macaroni, and cheese! Just typing those words brings back memories of that bright blue box with its bowl of orange, cheese covered noodles. As a kid, I probably ate my weight in macaroni and cheese a hundred times over. It’s one of those foods that never gets old.
One of the defining moments that forever changed how I ate mac n’ cheese came when I was about twelve years old. A friend of mine made a box for her and me to share. For some unknown reason, she added garlic salt to our bowls, and it was the best I had ever had. I’ve never eaten plain macaroni and cheese since. Now I make a more sophisticated version, but it all started with the garlic salt.
Preheat and Prep:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spray a 6-inch casserole dish with cooking spray. Chop the jalapenos, shred 3 ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, measure 2 ounces of cream cheese, and pour 1 cup of milk. Set all ingredients aside separately.
Cook the Noodles:
Generously season a large pot of water with salt and bring to a boil. Add your choice of noodles. Elbow, rotini, ziti, penne, or cavatappi noodles work well. Cook the noodles until they are al dente (firm to the bite). Strain the noodles and set aside. If it is several minutes before you are ready to use them, consider them in cold water to stop the cooking process.
Make the Roux:
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk to combine. Continue to whisk for 2-3 minutes to cook out any raw flour flavor. Next, add the chopped jalapenos, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, and paprika. Stir to combine and heat for an additional 30 seconds.
Add the Dairy:
Slowly add the milk to the roux and whisk to ensure no flour lumps remain. Continue to stir the mixture until the milk begins to steam, but do not allow it to boil! After the milk starts to steam, add the cream cheese, and stir to combine. The mixture will thicken but keep stirring until the all the cream cheese melts.
Allow the temperature to come back up slightly, then remove from the heat and add the shredded cheese a little at a time. Whisk, as you add the cheese and ensure all of it, melts before adding more. *If you find that the cheese isn’t melting, place the pan back on the heat temporarily. Continue this process using all of the cheese. Taste the sauce and add salt accordingly.
Combine the Noodles and Cheese:
Carefully pour the cheese sauce over the cooked noodles and stir to coat. Pour the macaroni and cheese into the prepared dish and top with panko breadcrumbs. Press down lightly on the breadcrumbs to ensure they stick to the mac n’ cheese.
Place the casserole dish into the preheated oven and bake for 12-15 minutes. Turn the broiler on low for the last 2-3 minutes to make the top crunchy and golden brown. Don’t leave it on broil for too long or the breadcrumbs will burn.
Remove the baked mac n’ cheese from the oven and serve immediately.
- 4 ounces of dried pasta, cooked
- 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 Tablespoon pickled jalapenos, chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/8 teaspoon paprika
- 1 cup milk
- 2 ounces cream cheese
- 3 ounces cheddar cheese
- Salt to taste
- 3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare a 6-inch casserole dish with cooking spray.
Cook the pasta noodles. Drain and set aside.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk to combine. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
Add the jalapenos, red pepper flakes, garlic powder, and paprika. Stir to combine and cook for an additional 30 seconds.
Carefully pour in the milk and whisk to ensure all there are no flour lumps. Heat until the milk steams.
Combine the cream cheese and stir constantly until the cream cheese melts. The mixture will begin to thicken.
After the cream cheese melts, remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the cheese a little at a time, stirring intermittently.
Once the cheese is incorporated, taste the sauce and add salt.
Pour the sauce over the cooked noodles and stir to coat.
Place the macaroni and cheese into the prepared casserole dish.
Add the panko breadcrumbs and press lightly so the breadcrumbs adhere to the noodles.
Bake in a preheated oven for 12-15 minutes.
To get a crunchy, golden crust, turn the broiler on low for the last 2-3 minutes.