This is one of the most popular dishes in my house with friends and family alike. This is a decadent baked mac and cheese, rich and bubbly with a blend of cheeses, enriched with milk and cream, topped with a browned panko crust.
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Baked Macaroni and Cheese with a Panko Crust: The real deal, cheesy and rich, and baked with a gorgeous crunchy topping.Tweet This
- Pasta – I like to use a short, chunky shape and change up the options. Cavatappi, rotini, ziti, penne, small shells, campanelle, and of course — macaroni!
- Cheese – Some good basic cheeses to start with are sharp or extra sharp cheddar, Gruyère, Swiss, fontina, or any combination of these.
- Milk – Milk provides the perfect base for a creamy cheese sauce.
- Heavy cream – I like to use some heavy whipping cream in addition to the milk. It transforms the cheese sauce from plain creamy to decadent and rich.
- Dijon mustard – The Dijon mustard gives the macaroni and cheese a little kick and a little edge and saves the dish from being too intensively rich and creamy (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
- All-purpose flour – Adding flour thickens the cheese sauce.
- Red pepper – Red pepper flakes add a slight kick.
- Panko Topping – A combination of melted butter, Parmesan cheese, and panko breadcrumbs makes an irresistible topping for baked mac and cheese. It elevates this creamy dish with a fabulous contrast in texture.
How to Make Baked Macaroni and Cheese
- Prep oven: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a shallow 4-quart baking dish.
- Make panko topping: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat or place it in a medium-sized microwave-safe dish and heat it in a microwave oven until melted for 15 seconds. Add the panko and the Parmesan and stir until well combined.
- Make the sauce: Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and red pepper flake until the flour is blond in color, about 4 minutes. Whisk in the milk. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the sauce simmer until it starts to thicken, about 5 minutes. Add the cream, grated cheese, Parmesan, mustard, salt, and black pepper.
- Cook the pasta: While you are making the sauce, bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the pasta until barely al dente. Set aside 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta.
- Combine sauce and pasta: Whisk the reserved pasta cooking water into the cheese sauce, combining it thoroughly. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Spoon the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish.
- Top and serve: Sprinkle the panko topping evenly over the pasta and bake it until golden and bubbling. Let the pasta sit for a few minutes before serving.
Although we call it macaroni and cheese, the actual pasta shape is up for grabs. I like to use a short, chunky shape and change up the options. Cavatappi, rotini, ziti, penne, small shells, campanelle, and macaroni. I like to use pasta with little ridges on them, which grab the sauce nicely. Look for packaging that says “rigate” (ridged) if you’re not sure, but don’t worry: smooth pasta will be just fine.
Some good basic cheeses to start with are sharp or extra sharp cheddar, Gruyère, Swiss, fontina, or any combination of these. You can also use bits of softer cheeses, like Brie or fresh, mild goat cheese if you have some small pieces lingering about. I keep changing up the cheese in this dish, depending on what I have on hand, so my mac and cheese never tastes the same twice, which I find part of the thrill.
Pro Cooking Tips
- Kids can grate cheeses if they are old enough to handle a grater. They can measure all of the ingredients and mix together the panko topping. If they can be safely near a hot stove, they can help stir together the sauce. And they can sprinkle the crumb topping over the casserole.
- Remove all rinds you wouldn’t want to see floating around in your mac and cheese. Unless you really know your audience, stay away from very potent cheeses like blue cheese, smoked cheese, or anything particularly stinky.
- If you’re going to refrigerate or freeze the dish before baking, hold off on the panko topping. It’s best if you add it just before baking.
Leftovers and Storage
- You can prepare the macaroni and cheese up to the point of baking and let it sit at room temperature for up to 2 hours. If you want it to stay longer, you can refrigerate it for up to 1 day. Either let the macaroni and cheese come to room temperature before baking or, if you’re taking it straight from the refrigerator, add about fifteen minutes to the baking time.
- Also, you can wrap the assembled macaroni and cheese very well with aluminum foil and freeze it for up to 3 months. Either defrost it in the fridge (this takes about 24 hours) or add about 30 minutes to the baking time — leave the foil on the casserole for the first 30 minutes of baking so the top doesn’t get too brown.
What to Serve With Baked Mac and Cheese
More Creamy Macaroni and Cheese Recipes
- Stovetop Macaroni and Four Cheeses
- Creamy Four-Cheese Penne Rigate
- Ultimate Creamy Baked Wisconsin Macaroni and Cheese
- One Skillet (Carroty) Macaroni and Cheese
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Baked Macaroni and Cheese
For the Panko Topping
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
For the Pasta and Cheese Sauce
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter (plus butter for greasing the baking dish)
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 4 ½ cups 2-percent or whole milk (however indulgent you’re feeling)
- 1 cup heavy (whipping cream)
- 5 cups coarsely grated flavorful cheese (such as sharp cheddar or Gruyere, or a mix; see Note)
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt (or more to taste)
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste)
- 1 ½ packages (24 ounces) dried cavatelli (or ziti, penne, or any short pasta)
- Preheat the oven to 400 F. Butter a shallow 4-quart baking dish.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and let the water return to a boil.
- Meanwhile, make the panko topping: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat or place it in a medium-size microwave-safe dish and heat it in a microwave oven until melted, about 15 seconds. Add the panko and the Parmesan and stir until well combined. Set the panko topping aside.
- Make the sauce: Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and red pepper flakes, if using. Cook, stirring, until the flour is blond in color, about 4 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk. Increase the heat to medium-high and let it come to a simmer, whisking frequently. Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the sauce simmer until it starts to thicken, about 5 minutes. Add the cream, grated cheese, Parmesan, mustard, salt, and black pepper, stirring until everything is smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or black pepper as necessary.
- Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it until barely al dente (follow the package directions, but stop a minute or two before the pasta is completely tender). Set aside 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.
- Whisk the reserved pasta cooking water into the cheese sauce, combining it thoroughly. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Spoon the pasta mixture into the prepared baking dish. There will appear to be a lot of sauce. Some of it will be absorbed into the pasta as it cooks, and in my book, saucy is better than dry.
- Sprinkle the panko topping evenly over the pasta and bake it until golden and bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes. Let the pasta sit for a few minutes before serving.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.