Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Baked Macaroni and Cheese
Beautiful Baked Macaroni and Cheese from Katie Workman /
  • 60 mins
  • Prep: 25 mins,
  • Cook: 35 mins
  • Yield: Serves 6-8
Ratings (7)

My kids like Kraft macaroni and cheese. There, I said it. I haven’t made it in a long time although, like most of us, I have succumbed to the call of the blue box at times. But every now when they eat it at a friend’s house, I definitely get to hear about it later: “Kiefer gets to have the macaroni and cheese in the box every night! Why can’t we ever have that?” 

Still, they seem to be willing to shovel in this homemade version at a pretty fast clip, and we can pronounce all of the ingredients. Laced with a blend of cheeses and enriched with milk and cream, even grown-up guests tend to sigh with pleasure while looking at the browned panko crust sitting atop a bubbling casserole of cavatelli nestled in a sauce fragrant with a mixture of Gruyère and cheddar. (Although we call it macaroni and cheese, the actual pasta shape is up for grabs.) It’s hard to think of a single dish with more universal kid appeal.

The Dijon mustard and red pepper flakes give the macaroni and cheese a little kick, a little edge, and save the dish from being too intensively rich and creamy (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And, no, this isn’t low fat. Thanks for asking.

Don't Miss: One Skillet Cheesy Beef and Macaroni

What You'll Need

  • For the Panko Topping:  
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs, see Note)
  • 1⁄2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • For the Pasta and Cheese Sauce:
  • 4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter, plus butter for greasing the baking dish
  • 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Optional:1 ⁄2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 4 1⁄2 cups milk
  • 1 cups heavy (whipping) cream
  • 5 cups cheddar cheese (or Gruyère, or a mix, grated: see Note below)
  • 1⁄2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt (or more to taste)
  • 1⁄2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (or more to taste)
  • 1 1⁄2 packages (24 ounces) dried cavatelli (or ziti, penne, or any short pasta)

How to Make It

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Butter a shallow 4-quart baking dish.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and let the water return to a boil.
  3. 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, 15 seconds. Add the panko and the Parmesan and stir until well combined. Set the panko topping aside.
  1. Make the pasta and 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 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


What cheese to use?

I keep changing up the cheese in this dish, depending on what I have on hand, and so my mac and cheese never tastes the same twice, which I find part of the thrill.

My lovely dish-washing husband, however, has been known to look sadly at the last few globs on the plates and say wistfully, “Well, we’ll never eat that again,” already mourning the delicious, undocumented combination of cheeses that has come and gone.

Some good basic cheeses to start with are sharp or extrasharp cheddar, Gruyère, Swiss, Manchego, and 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. Remove all rinds you wouldn’t want to see floating around in your mac and cheese and unless you really know your audience, stay away from very potent cheeses like blue cheese or smoked cheese or anything particularly stinky.