SECRET #1: CLASSIC CHEDDAR IS BETTER
Many recipes call for cheesy additions of gruyère, fontina, brie, gouda, and even blue cheese. But we wanted our ultimate recipe to deliver classic mac and cheese flavor—meaning we wanted it to taste like cheddar. We tried a few of these other cheeses in a blend with cheddar but the only one that still tasted iconic was this macaroni and cheese, which called for a combination of cheddar and parmesan. The parm brought a nuttiness that rounded out the cheddar flavor rather than distracting from it. We chose extra-sharp cheddar to stand out in our béchamel sauce (more on that below). Add we recommend you shred your own cheese. That bagged stuff at the grocery store usually has stabilizers, a drier texture, and less flavor than a hunk of cheddar does.
SECRET #2: ADD CREAM TO MAKE A SUPER-RICH SAUCE
The most crucial element of this casserole is the basic white sauce (aka béchamel), which serves as a creamy vehicle for all that cheese.
We tried making béchamel with milk, which was delicious but didn’t have the luscious creaminess that we were looking for in our mac and cheese. So we took inspiration from Macaroni and Cheese with Garlic Bread Crumbs and tried a combination of milk and cream, which added the indulgent texture we were seeking. Another key for success we discovered: Be sure to whisk in the cheese in three stages, making sure it melts completely at each stage before adding more. You’ll have the creamiest, cheesiest sauce possible in no time.
SECRET #3: ADD A DASH OF MUSTARD POWDER FOR A KICK
In many recipes, there’s a special ingredient that might not be immediately detectable but boosts the other flavors in a dish. We tried a few spices like cayenne pepper and nutmeg, but were blown away by the addition of mustard powder used in this macaroni and cheese recipe. The mustard powder brings a subtle, horseradish-like heat that highlights the flavor of the cheddar in the best way possible.
SECRET #4: UPGRADE YOUR BREADCRUMB TOPPING WITH GARLIC AND PARM
Next, we tackled the great debate over traditional breadcrumbs vs. panko (Japanese breadcrumbs). With its light and airy texture and supreme crunch, panko won over our hearts. But we didn’t stop there. We were inspired by Macaroni and Cheese with Garlic Bread Crumbs to cook the panko in butter with garlic until lightly toasted. This recipe for macaroni and cheese taught us to fold some Parmesan cheese into the breadcrumbs, which adds another layer of flavor to the crunchy topping.
DON’T FORGET TO SEASON!
Like so many other foods, forgetting to season your mac and cheese can make it fall flat. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We season in 3 steps in our recipe: the topping, the sauce, and while cooking the macaroni. Plus, parmesan brings a natural saltiness to both the topping and the cheese sauce.
We’re not going for any gimmicks here, Our Favorite Macaroni and Cheese doesn’t need bacon, lobster, or truffles to make it special. It’s the perfect combination of creamy, cheesy, and crispy with just the right amount of kick from the mustard powder. Life is too short to eat mac and cheese from a box, so go ahead and make this recipe your go-to comfort dish this fall.
For the topping:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for baking dish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 ounces finely grated Parmesan (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the macaroni and sauce:
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
1 pound dried elbow macaroni
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons mustard powder
16 ounces coarsely grated extra-sharp cheddar (about 6 cups)
2 ounces grated Parmesan (about 1/2 cup)
9- by 13-inch baking dish
Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in the middle of oven. Butter the baking dish.
Make the topping:
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat butter and oil until butter foam subsides. Add panko and garlic; cook, stirring, until crumbs are golden brown, 4–6 minutes. Transfer crumbs to a medium bowl, stir in Parmesan and salt, and set aside.
Prepare the macaroni and sauce:
Set a large, covered pot of salted water over high heat to boil. Add macaroni and cook until just al dente (avoid overcooking). Drain macaroni and set aside.
In a large wide pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Sprinkle flour over butter, whisking to incorporate and make a roux. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until roux is light golden, about 4 minutes. Gradually pour in milk and cream, whisking constantly to incorporate and make a béchamel sauce. Raise heat to medium-high and bring sauce to a low boil, whisking constantly. Reduce to a simmer, whisking occasionally, and cook until béchamel sauce is thick and coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes more.
Add 2 tsp. salt, pepper, and mustard powder. Add the cheeses in three batches, whisking until each addition is completely melted before adding more. Remove from heat.
Add the drained macaroni to the pot with the cheese sauce and stir well to coat. Transfer macaroni mixture to the buttered baking dish and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle topping evenly over macaroni and bake until golden and bubbling, 18–22 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving.