Macaroni and cheese with a crusty top is just about the best comfort food I can imagine. Soft inside and crunchy on the top, it is the perfect way to ward off the wind during a cold winter evening.
This recipe is pretty simple. The only part that requires a bit of concentration is making the sauce. It begins with a mixture of equal parts melted butter and flour, cooked while stirring constantly for a few minutes (called a roux), to which you add heated milk until you get a creamy sauce. The tricky part is that you have to constantly stir the mixture. While it doesn’t takes long (less than 10 minutes), you do have to stay off your phone and away from funny cat videos while you stand over a pot.
Still, the few minutes that you devote to concentrating on this task will be rewarded; you’ll end up with a sublime casserole that bears no resemblance to the Velveeta stuff that used to pass for food in my parents’ house.
The predominate flavor in macaroni and cheese is, you guessed it – cheese. I usually grate my own because it’s fresher and cheaper that way. But occasionally I buy pre-shredded mixtures for Tex Mex dishes like enchiladas and those work fine for macaroni and cheese.
I’m not a snob when it comes to the cheeses for a batch of mac ‘n cheese. It’s a great way to use up scraps of cheese leftover from parties or other recipes and that means no two batches of mac ‘n cheese taste exactly the same. But that’s part of the fun of this casserole. Plus, it’s a mitzvah (good deed) to use, rather than throw away, the odds and ends.
Whether you prefer to stick to a single type of cheese, or use several varieties, whether you grate it yourself or buy pre-grated, just make sure the cheese is tasty and of good quality.
My high sided 10-inch cast iron pan worked beautifully for this recipe. But any oven-safe pan (no wooden or plastic handles!) or casserole dish is fine. In terms of shape, if it’s not round, use a 9-inch by 13-inch rectangle for best results. If your mac ‘n cheese is close to the top of the pan/casserole (as mine was), bake it with a large sheet pan underneath to catch any drips so they don’t fall to the oven floor and burn.
Macaroni and Cheese Casserole
Servings – 4-6 as a main dish, 6-8 as a side Cost – $8-10
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter + 1-2 tablespoons for greasing pan & dotting on top
- 4 tablespoons (¼ cup) flour
- 2 cups (about 10 ounces) elbow or similar small macaroni
- 2½ cups milk (I use fat free)
- 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) cream cheese – optional
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon dried mustard
- Dash of cayenne pepper
- ½ – 1 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 2½ cups (about 8 ounces) grated hard or semi-hard cheese
- ½ cup Panko (Japanese-style large, crunchy) breadcrumbs
- Medium-large pot
- Small pot or microwave safe liquid measuring cup (for heating milk)
- 1 medium bowl (for macaroni) and 1 small bowl (for topping)
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cups
- Wooden spoon or whisk
- 10” high sided pan or 9”x13” casserole dish
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and butter the pan or casserole. Mix ½ cup of the cheese and the panko in a small bowl and set aside.
- Cook the macaroni al dente (the minimum time to get it soft enough to bite). Rinse in the strainer with cold water and set aside.
- Heat the milk to steaming but not boiling. (I microwaved mine on high for a total of about 6 minutes, in 2-minute increments. How much time microwaving requires depends on the strength of your microwave.) Set aside.
- Melt the butter in the pot. Then add the flour and stir or whisk continuously on a low heat for 2-3 minutes. That cooks the flour so that you don’t taste it in the sauce and creates the roux that thickens the sauce once you pour in the milk.
- Slowly add the hot milk, continuing to stir until all of it is incorporated. Don’t worry if you get lumps at some point; keep stirring and most or all of them will disappear. Add the paprika, dried mustard, cayenne, salt and pepper and stir until they are combined into the sauce. Raise the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a low boil. Add the cream cheese in 3-4 pieces and stir as the sauce simmers. The cream cheese will melt into the sauce and the sauce will thicken. Continue simmering for 1-2 minutes and take it off the heat.
- Layer the cooked macaroni and the remaining 2 cups of cheese (after the ½ cup was taken out for the topping), starting with half of the macaroni, then half the cheese, and repeat, ending with cheese. Pour the sauce over the top. While the sauce seems quite thick at this point, it will descend into the layers as the casserole bakes. (If you’re really picky about having the sauce soak all the way through, add half of it after the first layer of cheese,) Add the cheese/panko topping, dot with butter, and bake the casserole for about 30 minutes, until the macaroni and cheese is bubbling and the top is nicely browned.