Recipe: Make-Ahead Creamy Mac & Cheese Casserole

Recipe: Make-Ahead Creamy Mac & Cheese Casserole

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Macaroni and cheese is a welcome addition to any spread, whether it's at the neighborhood potluck or even the Thanksgiving table. The fact that it's a kid favorite, inexpensive, and vegetarian also bumps it into the category of a no-fail dish. This classic mac and cheese has pasta floating in an easy white sauce loaded with sharp cheddar for flavor and Monterey Jack for creaminess. It's crowned with buttery cracker crumbs as a final touch. With just two tricks up your sleeve, it can be made a few days ahead and tossed into the oven when it's go time, but still tastes as fresh as the day you made it.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Cooling Is Key

You'll notice that this looks very much like a standard mac and cheese recipe, so what makes it something you could make ahead? There are two key things that set this recipe apart: First, you need to both slightly undercook your pasta and cool it off. This is the time to go al dente with your pasta, since al dente pasta won't get as mushy as it sits in the sauce. After the pasta's cooked, it needs to be rinsed thoroughly with cold water to halt the cooking and rinse off the extra starch that can make mac and cheese too gloppy.When the pasta's ready, use the same pot to make the sauce.

The second make-ahead key: After the sauce is ready, cool it off. Letting it hang out for about 30 minutes until it's just warm to the touch before mixing in the pasta means that the sauce won't keep cooking the pasta, so the pasta retains its texture.

So, rinse your pasta and cool your sauce. Easy, right? The creamy macaroni and cheese of your dreams is waiting for you!

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Make-Ahead Creamy Mac & Cheese Casserole

Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish; 10 to 12 as a side dish

1 pound dry elbow macaroni or small shell pasta
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
5 cups whole or 2% milk
8 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese (about 2 cups)
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese (about 2 cups)
1 cup crushed round butter crackers, such as Ritz (about 25 crackers)

Make the macaroni and cheese: Bring a large pot or Dutch oven of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water until cool to the touch, and set aside to drain thoroughly.

In the now-empty pot, heat 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the flour, salt, mustard, and cayenne if using and whisk well to combine. Continue whisking until the mixture becomes fragrant and deepens in color, about 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer, whisking frequently.

Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened slightly, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add both cheeses and whisk until smooth and fully melted. Set aside until cooled to just warm to the touch, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and place in a medium bowl. Add the cracker crumbs and stir to combine; set aside.

When the sauce is cooled, add the pasta and stir to combine. Transfer to a 9x13-inch baking dish and spread into an even layer. Sprinkle the cracker crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

When ready to bake: Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 400°F. While the oven is heating, let the baking dish sit out at room temperature.

Bake covered until heated through and bubbling around the edges, about 45 minutes. Uncover and bake until the top is golden-brown, about 15 minutes more. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.

Recipe Notes

  • Bake and eat directions: If you'd like to make and eat the mac and cheese right away, skip cooling the sauce and mix the pasta right in. Assemble in the baking dish and bake uncovered until the edges are bubbling and the top is golden-brown, 2o to 30 minutes.
  • Make ahead: This recipe is designed to be assembled and refrigerated up to 2 days ahead before baking.
  • Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
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