This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is the real deal: creamy, velvety, gooey macaroni and cheese baked in the oven with a buttery cracker crust just like mom used to make it.
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If you’re lucky, your childhood mac and cheese memories have a split personality. There was, of course, the standby blue box for when the babysitter came over, but the really good stuff was made from scratch and oven-baked with a crunchy, bubbling, browned cracker crumb topping. Our classic recipe uses crumbled butter crackers (like Ritz), but seasoned panko breadcrumbs would also give you a nice crispy top.
We satisfied our cravings by dialing up the cheesiness — the last thing we wanted was that sad, wan, vaguely-cheesy flavor you get with frozen mac and cheese. So we piled on two kinds of cheese, glorious cheese — plenty of good old cheddar, plus Gruyère for a sharper, cheesier, and just a teeny bit funkier flavor. (Emmental would be dang good, too.)
Garlic powder, smoked paprika, and a dab each of hot sauce and yellow mustard round out the smooth, rich bechamel sauce, but don’t worry — the flavor’s 100% classic. (The spices here are the kind of thing you won’t notice, but would notice if they weren’t there.) If, on the other hand, you do want to jack up your mac, more heat and bacon would definitely be welcome.
You’ll really see the difference when you give it a scoop and watch that cheese stretch — we’ve never seen instant mac and cheese do that.
Baked Mac & Cheese
Makes 6 servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
- kosher salt
- ½ pound (225 g) elbow macaroni
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 1¼ cups milk
- 3 cups grated cheddar cheese
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon yellow mustard, or ½ teaspoon mustard powder
- 1 cup grated Gruyère or Emmental cheese
- ⅔ cup crushed butter cracker crumbs (about 15 crackers), or panko bread crumbs
- Preheat the oven to 400°F / 200°C.
- In a medium pot of salted boiling water, cook the elbow macaroni until it’s just shy of al dente, about 5 minutes (or 2 minutes less than the cooking time listed on the package). Drain the pasta and transfer it to a large mixing bowl.
- Toss the pasta with 1 tablespoon of the butter, until the butter is melted and the pasta is evenly coated. Set aside.
- In a large saucepan, melt 1½ tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and stir to form a paste. Cook, stirring continuously, for about 1 minute or until the flour is lightly cooked.
- Whisk in about half of the milk to form a thick paste. (Make sure to get into all corners of the pan while mixing as the paste tends to stick.) Add the remaining milk to the pan and mix it well to combine. The sauce will initially become very thick, then it will thin out once all of the milk is added. Cook, stirring often, until the sauce comes to a simmer and begins to thicken again. Turn off the heat and, working in increments, whisk in the cheddar cheese until it forms a smooth cheese sauce.
- Whisk in the garlic powder, paprika, hot sauce, and mustard or mustard powder. Taste the sauce and season it with salt, if necessary.
- Add the cooked macaroni to the cheese sauce and mix to combine. Transfer the macaroni and cheese mixture to a greased 8-inch baking dish and stir in the grated Gruyere cheese.
- In a small mixing bowl, add the crushed butter crackers or panko bread crumbs and 1½ tablespoons of melted butter. Mix well to combine. (If using panko bread crumbs, you may want to season them with a little salt.) Top the surface of the mac and cheese with the buttered bread crumbs.
- Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and the top is nicely browned. Let the mac & cheese cool for 5 – 10 minutes before serving. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.
Mac & cheese is our favorite comfort food: we’ve also got an amazingly easy slow cooker macaroni and cheese recipe.
Recipe adapted from Serious Eats.