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Cheesy baked mac and cheese is stuffed with gooey cheese, creamy sauce and crunchy homemade breadcrumbs seasoned with herbs to taste like your favorite Thanksgiving stuffing!
This elegant baked mac and cheese recipe will be a standout on your table, during holiday season or anytime you need some serious comfort.
It combines any short pasta shape with an Italian-style bechamel sauce and two kinds of cheese. The dish is baked with an herby fresh breadcrumb topping that adds a crunchy counterpoint.
There’s no doubt about it — whenever I make macaroni and cheese from scratch, my family goes absolutely bonkers for it. That’s because pasta recipes in any form are the ultimate comfort food.
My love for pasta started when I was just a baby. Growing up in an Italian-American family, one of my first solid foods was pastina (a type of teeny-tiny pasta shaped like little stars) that my mother mixed with milk, butter and a little bit of sugar.
Doesn’t that sound good?! No wonder I grew up to crave pasta as my ultimate soul food.
The best pasta for baked mac and cheese
- Cavatappi: Resembling elbow pasta noodles, they’re only a bit longer and have an extra curl or two.
- Fusilli: Because of its curly shape, corkscrew pasta is one of the BEST pasta shapes to use for making baked mac and cheese.
- Shells or orecchiette: With ridges on their surface, little cup-shaped pasta captures the cheesy sauce on the outside as well as the inside. It’s so good!
Breadcrumbs seasoned like classic stuffing!
Along with the pasta and the white, cheesy, creamy sauce coating the pasta, it’s the crunchy breadcrumb topping that could be my favorite part of this recipe.
The crumbs are inspired by the herby seasonings of the traditional Thanksgiving stuffing my grandma used to make.
You’re probably already familiar with the classic combo of fresh rosemary, sage and thyme. That trio of herbs instantly reminds you of fall and the holidays.
In this recipe, the herbs release their piney, aromatic fragrances and flavors into the breadcrumbs after they’re toasted in butter. They pair perfectly with the luscious white sauce.
How to make the white sauce
The first step to making the creamy base for baked macaroni and cheese is to make a basic white sauce — a bechamel sauce — with butter, flour and milk.
I recommend using whole milk because it makes a richer, thicker sauce than lower fat milk.
- After melting butter in a saucepan, stir in an equal amount of flour and cook until it swells and “blooms” in the butter.
- At this point, you gradually add the milk, whisking at the same time to prevent clumps from forming.
- Cook over medium-high heat until you see small bubbles forming on the outside of the pan. Keep stirring until the sauce starts to thicken — this happens in just a few minutes so be sure to keep your eye on it.
- As soon as the sauce looks like a thick smoothie in texture, take the pan off the heat and stir in heavy cream and some grated Parmesan cheese. The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated a day ahead.
- Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water exactly 6 minutes, or about half the time that your pasta box directions call for. This will ensure that the pasta doesn’t overcook and turn mushy in the oven.
Baked Mac and Cheese with Herby Stuffing Breadcrumbs
- 5 tablespoons (75 g) unsalted butter, divided
- 1 ½ cups (162 g) fresh breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) chopped fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 16-ounce (450 g) package cavatappi, shells or elbow pasta
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups (375 ml) whole milk
- 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
- ¾ cup (75 g) grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 ounces (225 g) Fontina cheese, shredded on a box grater
- Preheat the oven to 375 (190C) degrees.
- Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch skillet. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat with the butter. Cook 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until the crumbs are golden and smell toasty. Remove from the heat and stir in the thyme, rosemary, sage and black pepper. Set aside. (Breadcrumbs can be made ahead. Store in a covered container at room temperature up to 3 days.).
- Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the flour and whisk to blend with the butter. Cook 2 minutes, until the flour mixture looks smooth and creamy. Pour in the milk and add ½ teaspoon salt.
- Cook over medium-high heat until you see small bubbles forming on the outside of the pan. Keep stirring until the sauce starts to thicken — this happens in just a few minutes so be sure to keep your eye on it. Cook 3-5 minutes, or until the mixture has the texture of a thick smoothie. Stir in the heavy cream and ½ cup Parmesan and remove from the heat.
- Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the pasta, stir and bring back to a boil. Cook exactly 6 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Add half the Fontina cheese to the pasta. Pour the milk mixture over the pasta and stir to coat. Transfer to a 3-quart baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining Fontina and Parmesan cheeses over the pasta and top evenly with the breadcrumbs.
- Bake 20-25 minutes, until the crumbs are golden brown and the sauce is bubbling at the edge of the dish. Serve hot.
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- Breadcrumbs can be made ahead. Store in a covered container at room temperature up to 3 days.
- To make your own fresh breadcrumbs, cut 2 or 3 slices of crusty bread into cubes. Pulse in a food processor until they form coarse crumbs.