I’m not here to convince you that mac and cheese is delicious. It’s likely we’re already on the same page about that.
I am, however, here to humbly tip my hat to the boxed version of this comfort food and say, “Thanks for all you do, but you’re benched today.”
Having been in the professional culinary industry for many years, it always surprises my friends when they get a peek into my pantry. Although I love nothing more than meticulously preparing a fully homemade meal, that doesn’t mean I don’t take the occasional shortcut.
At the end of a long day, I feel the need for a quick fix more than ever. So I’ll just give it to you straight.
The majority of the time, you’ll find me in my kitchen whisking up a roux, thinly slicing ginger and scallions, or tossing homemade dough. But I am often the proud eater of boxed mac and cheese, packaged ramen, and frozen pizza as well.
A fast fix can be great, but more often than not, I prefer the real deal. There’s no reason to knock the store-bought stuff. But all this is to say, if you’ve got a dependable homemade comfort food recipe up your sleeve and the time and energy to cook, why not just do the damn thing and reap the benefits of a meal that tastes ten times better?
Now, look up your sleeve and find the creamy, protein-packed mac and cheese I just put there for you. This is the epitome of a simple, soothing casserole that you can create from the sauce up.
As fancy as it sounds, cheese sauce that’s made from scratch, aka mornay, doesn’t take much effort to throw together. Once you master the basic method of creating a bechamel and adding cheese, you can use it in dozens of your favorite dishes. Think of all the wonderful foods that can be enhanced with a luxurious creamy sauce.
Want to know what improves the flavor of a mornay even more? A hefty dash of savory spices like garlic, onion, and pungent mustard powder.
Let’s move along to the other ingredients in our mac and cheese. You know, since you can’t make an entire meal out of cheese sauce – although I certainly give it my best shot every time I order Mexican takeout.
Since we weave juicy shredded chicken into the mix, this recipe is well-rounded. It upgrades mac and cheese from side dish status to the main event. You can throw in some greens (like blanched haricots verts or spinach) to balance the carbs and fat, or serve a salad alongside it to complete your meal.
I also vote for minimal mess in the kitchen. To keep the dish count to a minimum, you can even boil the chicken, cook the pasta, and make the sauce all in the same large stock pot or Dutch oven.
But wait, there’s more!
I know you’re going to love the epically crispy, gloriously golden-brown breadcrumb topping, the perfect combination of melted butter and panko. You can’t pull that out of a box.
You know what you can get in a box? A packet of powdered cheese. How appetizing.
Place that sad little sleeve side-by-side with this savory sauce loaded with melty cheddar, rich, creamy fontina, and nutty parmesan and tell me it wasn’t worth taking the extra steps to make this chicken mac ‘n’ cheese from scratch.
Go on. I’ll wait.Print
A creamy cheddar and fontina sauce filled with savory spices coats shredded chicken and tender elbow noodles in this comfort food bake.
- 1 pound elbow noodles
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1/2 cup panko (or regular) breadcrumbs
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika, divided
- 1 cup shredded medium cheddar cheese
- 1 cup shredded fontina cheese
- 4 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, divided
- 2 cups cooked and shredded chicken
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 350°F, and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or a 4-quart casserole pan with non-stick cooking spray.
- Add the elbow macaroni to the boiling water and cook until just about al dente, according to package instructions. Before draining, reserve 1 cup of the starchy cooking water. Drain the noodles and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to prevent them from sticking together.
- While the pasta is cooking, make the buttered breadcrumbs. In a small bowl, microwave 1 tablespoon of the butter on high until it melts, about 30 seconds. Stir in the breadcrumbs. Set aside.
- Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large pot over medium heat.
- Whisk the flour into the butter and cook, whisking often, for about 3-5 minutes to cook out the raw flavor of the flour. The roux should be lightly golden. While continuing to whisk, gradually pour in the milk and cream a few tablespoons at a time, making sure no clumps form.
- Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the sauce to a boil. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly until thickened. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, the garlic powder, onion powder, and ground mustard, and 1 teaspoon of the paprika.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 2-3 minutes, continuing to stir frequently.
- A little at a time, fold the cheddar, fontina, and 2 tablespoons of the parmesan into the sauce.
- Remove the pot from heat, stir in the noodles, and add a few tablespoons of the starchy cooking water at a time as needed, to help the sauce cling to the pasta. Fold in the chicken, and season with the remaining salt and pepper. Season to taste with additional salt if necessary.
- Transfer to the prepared baking or casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with the buttered breadcrumbs, and dust with the remaining paprika and parmesan. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil and bake until the top is golden-brown, about 18-20 minutes.
- Remove from the oven. Allow the casserole to rest for about 5 minutes before serving. Divide the chicken mac ‘n’ cheese among bowls, garnish with the parsley, and serve.
- Prep Time: 15 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Category: Mac and Cheese
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: Casserole
Keywords: chicken, macaroni, cheese, mac
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Gather, Prep, and Measure Ingredients
Preheat the oven to 350°F and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. You can boil the chicken (if you’re making it from scratch), cook the pasta, and make the cheese sauce all in the same large pot or Dutch oven, if you like!
Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or 4-quart casserole pan with non-stick cooking spray.
Measure the oil, butter, panko breadcrumbs, flour, milk, and cream. Pay your spice rack a visit, and measure out the salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, ground mustard, and paprika.
Chop the parsley.
Measure 2 cups of shredded chicken. You can either use a cooked rotisserie chicken, boil and shred chicken breasts from scratch which you’ll find the method for it here, or use your electric pressure cooker to prepare the meat.
Step 2 – Cook the Pasta and Make the Buttered Breadcrumbs
Add the noodles to the pot of boiling water and cook until just about al dente, according to package instructions. Keep in mind that the noodles are also going to bake in the oven so you want to undercook them slightly to prevent them from getting mushy.
Before draining, reserve 1 cup of the starchy cooking water which will help the sauce cling to the noodles. Drain the noodles in a colander and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. This prevents them from sticking together as they sit.
While the pasta is cooking, microwave 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small microwave-safe bowl on high until it melts, for about 30 seconds. Stir in the breadcrumbs so they’re coated in the melted butter, and set aside.
Step 3 – Make the Roux
Place a large pot over medium heat. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter.
Add the flour and immediately begin whisking the two together. Allowing it to gently bubble and turn lightly golden, whisk the roux continuously for about 3 to 5 minutes, to cook out the raw flavor of the flour.
The more you cook a roux, the darker it will get. For the purpose of this recipe, you want the roux to be a golden or blonde color, rather than one that’s dark and nutty.
Step 4 – Build the White Sauce
Still whisking, gradually pour in the milk and cream a little at a time, making sure no clumps form.
Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the sauce to a boil. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, until slightly thickened.
Season the sauce with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, the garlic powder, onion powder, and ground mustard, and 1 teaspoon of the paprika.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 2 to 3 more minutes, continuing to stir frequently.
A little at a time, fold the cheddar, fontina, and 2 tablespoons of the parmesan into the sauce. It will be melty and stretchy at this point.
Step 5 – Add in the Noodles and Chicken
Remove the pot from the heat and begin stirring the noodles into the sauce a little at a time. Add a few tablespoons of the starchy cooking water at a time as well, to help the sauce cling.
Fold in the chicken and season with the remaining salt and pepper. Season to taste with additional salt if necessary.
Transfer the chicken mac ‘n’ cheese into the prepared baking or casserole dish.
Step 6 – Top, Bake, and Serve
Scatter the buttered breadcrumbs on top and dust evenly with the remaining paprika and parmesan. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil to encourage even more crispy browning.
Bake until golden-brown, for about 18 to 20 minutes.
If the top isn’t getting as golden-brown as you’d like after 20 minutes, you can turn on your broiler for about 1-2 minutes – just keep an eye on things so it doesn’t burn.
Allow the casserole to cool before serving for about 5 minutes. Divide the chicken mac ‘n’ cheese among bowls, garnish with the parsley, and serve.
Mastering the Mac
Macaroni and cheese may seem like such a no-brainer that we don’t even need to talk about it. But unlike Fight Club, the first rule of mac and cheese is that you can – and should – talk about mac and cheese!
And the most important thing I have to say on the subject is that different cheeses truly do lend different personalities to the finished product.
The melt factor is key, so a medium cheddar that softens nicely is kind of a must in my book. I’m a sucker for sharp aged cheddars, but some can be crumbly or dry, so I occasionally use a blend to get the best of both worlds.
Other than the smooth, nutty fontina we used today, other expertly buttery cheeses include gruyere and muenster.
What are your top cheese choices for homemade mac? Share your most melt-worthy moments in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
There’s a reason elbow-shaped pasta is so popular, and it’s all about those built-in sauce trappers. Here are a few more noodle recipes to try next that call on this curvy variety:
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on March 21, 2014. Last updated on May 24, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”