Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Crunchy Crumb Topping

Hooray for real mac and cheese. It’s crazy to eat the stuff from the box when the real deal is so easy to make and so totally superior. Do use a cheese with some character, however, or the bland noodles will dominate.

While the classic is always welcome, try mixing things up on occasion….

For a smoky green chile version, add a 4-ounce can diced mild green chiles, drained, to the macaroni mixture before turning it into the baking dish. Add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika to the buttered crumbs.

For the “tuna melt” version, substitute 1 cup grated Havarti or Fontina cheese for 1 cup of the Cheddar when you make the sauce (you’ll still need a total of 3 cups cheese plus the 1/2 cup Parmesan or Pecorino). Add two 5-ounce cans tuna, drained, and 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest to the macaroni before turning it into the baking dish.–Sur La Table

LC Cheesy Goodness Note

If you’re going to do macaroni and cheese, then do macaroni and cheese. To do that properly, you need cheese. The good cheese. You know, the special, sort-of expensive, hauntingly sharp Cheddar from someplace where they know what they’re doing, like England or Wisconsin or Vermont. Trust us.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 25 M
  • 1 H
  • Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • Coarse salt
  • 1 pound elbow macaroni
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard (optional)
  • A pinch to 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • 3 cups (12 ounces) shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
  • 1/2 cup coarse fresh or dried bread crumbs

Directions

  • 1. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190° C).
  • 2. Salt a large pot of water generously, so it tastes like the sea. Bring to a boil, then add the macaroni and cook according to the package directions.
  • 3. Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and whisk until smooth and pastelike. Cook, whisking constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes.
  • 4. Still whisking vigorously, slowly pour in the milk. If the sauce gets lumpy, don’t worry; just keep whisking until it becomes smooth again. Lower the heat and simmer (yes, still whisking frequently!) until creamy and smooth, 7 to 8 minutes.
  • 5. Add 1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, the pepper, and the mustard and/or nutmeg, if using. Take the pan off the heat and add 2 1/2 cups of the Cheddar and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste and add more seasonings, if you like.
  • 6. Drain the macaroni and return it to the pot. Dump the sauce on top of the macaroni and toss thoroughly to coat. Turn the macaroni mixture into a large cast-iron skillet, a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, or other generously sized casserole dish. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining Cheddar and Parmesan.
  • 7. One last thing. Melt the remaining butter in a small skillet. (Use 2 tablespoons for uber-buttery bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon for swimsuit-season bread crumbs.) Drizzle the butter over the bread crumbs in a bowl and toss to coat. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the macaroni.
  • 8. Bake until the crumbs are browned and the macaroni is warmed through, 20 minutes if you’re in a hurry or, if you’re in no rush and prefer a creamier sauce, up to an hour or so. You’ll need to cover the dish after 15 minutes or so to prevent the crumbs from browning too much. Let the macaroni and cheese rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes before scooping it out in heaping portions.
Hungry for more? Chow down on these:

Testers Choice

Testers Choice
Testers Choice
Jennifer Piercy

May 10, 2011

I thought this recipe was outstanding! I’m always a little bit disappointed by most homemade mac and cheese recipes (let alone the box—I must be getting old because I don’t care at all for that anymore) but this one was great. I made the tuna melt version and thought it turned out perfectly, with great flavor. And it was easy to make as well. Will definitely make again.

Testers Choice
Sofia Reino

May 10, 2011

I liked the creamy feel to this dish. I’m not sure if it was the cheeses I used, but I was expecting a stronger extra-sharp cheese taste. We all loved it though, and I’ll make it again. We decided to add homemade bacon bits on the top, too. My husband thinks we should add anchovies next time, so we’ll definitely try that.

Testers Choice
Tracey G.

May 10, 2011

This dish was fantastic. It’s so much better than the boxed mac and cheese, and not that much more labor-intensive. The buttered breadcrumbs on top really make this dish. It’s perfect comfort food.

Testers Choice
Pat Francis

May 10, 2011

The smoky green chile version of this comfort food staple provides all the satisfaction of the basic home-cooked dish, with a little extra pizzazz. The spices—including the optional dry mustard and nutmeg—complement the creaminess of the cheese sauce. I’d reduce the amount of smoked paprika a bit when making this version again. Personally, I found 1/2 teaspoon to be a little too strong, especially since it’s concentrated in the crumbs on the top. I also think I’d prefer the crumbs lightly toasted before they go on top of the casserole, for an extra crunch.

Testers Choice
Adrienne Lee

May 10, 2011

This macaroni and cheese is classic, creamy, and wonderfully cheesy. I used the green chile variation, and the base tasted like chile con queso. The topping was on the dry side for us, though, so I’d probably just add more butter to the topping next time.

Testers Choice
Melinda Hamby

May 10, 2011

This is, hands down, one of the best baked mac and cheese recipes I’ve ever made. The Parma cheese added a great smoky flavor, and I’ll never make mac and cheese without it now. This is going into a weekly rotation in our home’s lunch/dinner schedule. To make this into a one-pot meal, instead of just a side dish, I added some honeyed ham before baking—it turned out awesome!

Testers Choice
Cleo M.

May 10, 2011

This recipe was very straightforward and concise. It’s macaroni and cheese as we all know it from our childhood—pure comfort food. Next time, I might use white pepper instead of black for a little added zip, as well as use more bread crumbs for additional crunch on top. I liked the dry mustard but I didn’t add nutmeg. The family loved it, and we’d certainly have it again. Also, this would make a very good take-to-work dish that would satisfy any and all tastes.

Testers Choice
Jean Moats

May 10, 2011

This is a wonderful addition to any cook’s repertoire. It’s easy to make, with great directions. I love that the recipe use both Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses. Be sure to add the nutmeg and the ground mustard; I added both ingredients, and the dish was terrific. If you add the salt to the water when cooking the pasta, you won’t need to add any extra salt to the sauce. I used dry bread crumbs instead of fresh ones, and it worked just as well. The macaroni and cheese reheats well in the microwave, in case there are any leftovers. Enjoy!

Testers Choice
Raye Tiedmann

May 10, 2011

I prepared this dish earlier in the day for dinner. Because it was pretty cold from the fridge, I baked it for longer than the time specified, and everyone was really happy with it—it became creamy, and toasty with the bread crumbs. Next time, I’ll cut down on the nutmeg because it stood out too much for me. This recipe is economical, as it does make a lot. The first night I had my husband get some fried chicken to go with it, and the next night, we grilled some steaks. Tonight, we will diet.

Testers Choice
Kristina R.

May 10, 2011

I remember the first time I had homemade macaroni and cheese: My college roommate, who truth be told wasn’t much of a cook, led me into our kitchen, took out a secret recipe card from her mother, and proceeded to make the first macaroni and cheese I’d ever had that didn’t come from a box. It was a revelation, and I haven’t looked back. Now you’re probably thinking, how is this version better than any version out there? I’ll let you in on a little secret—it’s the simplicity of the dish. I used aged extra-sharp Cheddar, grated the Parmesan cheese myself, and added only the nutmeg (along with salt and pepper) to flavor the cheese sauce. Definitely take the extra time to make the breadcrumbs from stale bread, as it’s worth the effort. I haven’t been able to recreate the macaroni and cheese my roommate made, but I’ll admit, this is the closest I’ve been since.

Testers Choice
Kip Hardy

May 10, 2011

This is a good, simple, straightforward macaroni and cheese recipe. It has plenty of substantial cheesy flavor, and comes together quite easily. It isn’t quite as creamy as I’d hoped, but the deep cheesy flavor makes up for what it lacks in creaminess. The combination of extra-sharp Cheddar and Parmesan really deliver. The buttered bread crumbs on top are great, and add a little bit of richness, but I’m sure the dish wouldn’t suffer without them. I just served this with a simple green salad for an easy weeknight dinner, but it would certainly be appropriate for a barbecue or potluck—or any other occasion that calls for macaroni and cheese.

Comments
Comments
  1. David Tomberlin says:

    Sounds absolutely amazing. I love the idea of testing this in a cast iron skillet!

  2. Rick Casner says:

    One more word: bacon

  3. Maureen says:

    I’ve not made macaroni and cheese in ages and this sounds delicious!

    • Allison Parker says:

      Thanks, Maureen. You’ll have to let us know if you make it and how you like it.

      And isn’t it the best, to be reminded of a great dish you’d almost forgotten about? Not that anyone could actually forget mac and cheese, but I think it’s one of those dishes that cycle out of our repertoire at different stages of life, and then when we return to them, well… Let’s say I never truly appreciated mac and cheese as a kid; I only thought I did.

  4. Sofia says:

    After first testing this recipe a while back I have made it often, sometimes switching the types of cheeses, yet strictly following the recipe. What I love about it is that you can easily prepare it ahead of time, that it also freezes amazingly well (just add the crumbs once defrosted), and that you can easily change what type of cheeses you use. I made it again last night and used a few different types of smoked cheeses from this recipe (http://leitesculinaria.com/81560/recipes-smoked-cheddar-cheese.html) and even added shredded smoked meats. The final result was fantastic, with a smokey, yet not too overpoweringly so, flavor.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Woohoo! Here’s to tried-and-true recipes that withstand a little innovation, Sofia. Many thanks for letting us know just how much of a keeper this recipe is….

  5. Ana Torreira says:

    Great recipe!!!!! Thanks so much!!!! I used to eat mac and cheese all the time when I was studying in the U.S. We never cook pasta this way in Spain, a lot of “carbonara” “bolognesa” and so on, but now I can prepare it for my kids, they will love it for sure, many thanks.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      You’re quite welcome, Ana. We’d love to hear what your kids think when you make it for them….

  6. Christina says:

    Awesome recipe! I substituted smoked paprika for the nutmeg and used cheddar, parmesan and fontina cheese. Went great with the BBQ dinner I made tonight. I tripled the recipe to feed around 14 people and there are tons of leftovers. People can’t wait to eat more!! Highly recommend.

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Christina, that’s terrific to hear! Love the swap for the smoked paprika and the notion of serving it with BBQ. I am wondering if the leftovers may work, if you want, as wee little individual canapés that are finger food, just like in this recipe? Just muffin tins slicked with butter or oil and a hot oven? Just a thought. I’ve got nothing against big ole scoopfuls of macaroni and cheese on a plate!

  7. Karen Huffman says:

    I love home made mac and cheese and cannot wait to try this version. I make browned butter once a week and find that toasting bread crumbs in the browned butter really adds a nice flavour to them. My browned butter bread crumbs will be atop this mac and cheese when I try it this week. Thank you Leite’s Culinaria for all of your wonderful recipes. Reading thru this weekly post whilst enjoying my Sunday morning coffee has become a ritual.

    • David Leite says:

      Karen, I love your brown-butter bread crumbs. Do let me know how it turns out. And thank you kindly for your lovely words. We love being a part of our readers’ routines!

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