It seems I’ve been searching for a long time for an easier way to make homemade mac and cheese. My most recent version (until now) used sour cream instead of a cream or bechamel sauce and was comparatively quick, easy, and tasty.
But you still had to boil the macaroni. Now, you might say, “Seriously? How hard is it to boil macaroni?!?” and you’d be a little bit right. But that seemingly unavoidable step in making mac and cheese is actually somewhat of a pain in the you-know-where and involves direct in-the-kitchen time, which often — especially on days when the little ones are here — is something I just don’t have that much of.
So, I started thinking about how my lasagna had evolved over time to using regular lasagna noodles (no fancy “no boil” noodles needed) but didn’t pre-cook them, just layered them into the dish dry and it works great. Would something like that work for mac and cheese?
I poked around online and found recipes indicating that it would, but even those still often were more involved than what I was looking for. Why couldn’t you just mix it all up and bake it?
I experimented, and voila — you can indeed just mix it all up and bake it. Only a very few minutes of prep, then a total of around 45 minutes in the oven which is totally “hands-off” other than a good stir around 30 minutes in before topping with more cheese. Not the answer if you’re looking for a 12 minute alternative to the box stuff, but for a super-easy dish that’ll keep you out of the kitchen (or give you time and energy to be doing something else) this is a great solution.
Looking for step-by-step? Keep reading. Just want the basic recipe? Skip on down to the bottom. Enjoy!
Spray a 9″ x 13″ pan with non-stick spray or wipe it with oil or butter if you don’t use spray. (I’ve found an organic brand at a good price at our local grocer’s and it does actually work really well, so I use it for things that I know are likely to make a baked-on mess!)
Sprinkle well with salt. (I just grab a good two-finger pinch, but it’s around 1/2 teaspoon if you’re the measuring type.) Add 2 cups of shredded cheese and mix around with the elbows.
Pour 4 cups (1 quart) of milk over the elbows. I know there are folks who say not to measure your liquids with your dry measuring cups, but this is about keeping it simple, so I just re-used my 1 cup measure and it worked fine.
Bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove from oven and stir well. Taste — noodles should be cooked, although likely on the al dente side. Check your seasoning and add more salt now if needed. (Cheese varies in its saltiness, so I like to err on the side of under-salting initially since it’s easy to add more now if you want.) If you’re not cooking for little kids, a light sprinkle of crushed red pepper is good at this juncture, or a light sprinkle of dry mustard powder if you typically use that in your mac and cheese. Drizzle cream over the top if you like a creamier style mac and cheese.
Sprinkle another cup of grated cheese on top and return to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes to melt cheese and finish off cooking the macaroni. If you like a nice brown crust, plan to leave it a bit longer or crank your oven up to 400.
A word about cheese here. If you’re a purist, feel totally free to grate your own cheese for this, and use any type of cheese or combination that you like. A good sharp cheddar would be tasty, or a mild colby especially for the littles. I knew I’d be making this on a day when I was wrangling a 5 year old and 16 month old, so I decided this was a “real-life” moment to balance my “real-food” side, and that I could live with the small amount of potato starch and cellulose used to keep pre-shredded cheese from clumping, so I used a store-bought mixture. Everyone survived. 😉
Notice that also since I was cooking with littles in mind, I didn’t let it develop too much of a brown crusty top, which I might do if it was just for us grown-ups.
- Non-stick spray or butter or oil for pan
- 2-1/2 elbow macaroni
- 4 cups milk
- Approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup cream, optional
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (more to taste)
- 3 cups shredded cheese, divided
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Spray 9" x 13" pan with non-stick spray or wipe with oil or butter.
- Put uncooked macaroni into pan. Sprinkle with salt.
- Add 2 cups of the cheese and mix into the macaroni.
- Pour milk over all, lightly smushing down elbows so they're all submerged.
- Cover tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove from oven, carefully remove tinfoil (it will be steamy) and stir. Taste for doneness of macaroni and adjust seasonings if needed.
- Drizzle with cream if you like a creamier style mac and cheese.
- Sprinkle remaining 1 cup of cheese on top and return (uncovered) to the oven for 15 to 20 minutes to finish cooking macaroni and melt cheese. Leave a bit longer or turn oven up to 400 if you like a crustier browned top.