Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese with Panko Crumb Topping

With Labor Day behind us, I’m setting my sights on cozy comfort foods like this ultra Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese.

Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese with bread crumb coating

Last week it was so hot here in Ohio that our local school district mandated an early dismissal for the safety of the students.

Meanwhile, the A/C at our house froze up. As you can imagine, this 7 month pregnant lady faced the unexpected heat wave and subsequent loss of air conditioning with positivity, grace, and good humor.

Just kidding. I mostly grumbled, moved as little as possible, and spent the afternoon hot wiring local hotel deals, because pools and air conditioning.

Despite all of this, I cannot seem to convince my cravings that fall has not yet arrived. Never mind that it was 90 degrees on Saturday. I wanted chili–Chipotle Sweet Potato Turkey Chili to be exact. And who cares if I still need to squeeze into a swim suit for a few more weeks? I want Pumpkin Spice Crumb Cake, Amish Apple Fry Pies, and alllll the Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese.

Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese in a cast iron skillet

Guys, I have been testing Baked Mac and Cheese recipes for weeks (have I mentioned how hard my job is before?), and I can finally say I’ve found our family’s new gold standard.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with baked mac. I’ve had a few good ones in my day, but I’ve also had my fair share of mushy, bland, and dry mac and cheese. It’s not a good look.

The goal during my testing was to come up with a recipe that combines the ultra rich, gooey quality of my favorite stovetop creamy mac and cheese with the crispy, crunchy, golden brown topping that makes baked mac and cheese so special.

We tried all sorts of things to get what we wanted–Different cheese combos. Cream in the sauce. Just milk in the sauce. Breadcrumb toppings. Panko toppings. Just cheese toppings.

Scoop of Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese

In the end, I think we found the ultimate baked mac and cheese, and I’m here to share all the tricks for making it yourself!

Keys to Making Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese

  1. Slightly undercook the noodles–I like to take the noodles out 1-2 minutes before they hit al dente. This allows them to soften more during the baking time without becoming a soggy, floppy mess.
  2. Make extra sauce– I found adding extra liquid to my usual stovetop mac and cheese sauce helped prevent the noodles from becoming dry during baking.
  3. Add cream to the sauce. This ins’t 100% necessary, but we saw a noticeable difference in richness and creaminess when we used a combination of milk and cream instead of just milk.
  4. Add extra cheese to the top– Not surprisingly, more cheese is never a bad thing.
  5. Add a panko bread crumb topping– Panko bread crumbs plus a hint of garlic powder and Pecorino Romano cheese form the golden crusty topping for this baked mac and cheese. Bread crumbs will work in a pinch, but in my opinion they’re just a little too…well…bready. Panko crumbs gives this mac and cheese that great crispy topping without feeling super heavy or carb-on-carby.
Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese with a wooden spoon

What cheeses should I use for macaroni and cheese?

I always recommend starting with a base of sharp cheddar. It melts well and has fantastic flavor–classic, with a hint of tang. I recommend using at least 1 cup of cheddar.

From there, it’s really personal preference, but our favorite combination ended up being cheddar, American, and Pecorino Romano. This combo was very creamy and had a nostalgic, classic flavor that appeals to both kids and adults. That said, there are plenty of other great options depending on your mood or personal tastes.

  • Try gruyere for a subtle nutty, sweet flavor.
  • If you’re looking to add some heat, try Hatch Chile, Chipotle, or Pepper Jack cheese. You can even use this Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese as a base!
  • Monterey Jack has a very mild flavor, but is a great melting cheese. Try it if you’re looking for an ultra smooth, buttery flavor.
  • Mozzarella is a great choice for topping a baked macaroni and cheese, as it browns beautifully and creates those strings of melty cheese we all dream of.

One final tip: If possible, avoid pre-shredded cheeses. Many of them have a coating on them that inhibits melting and can prevent your sauce from becoming the wonderfully dreamy and smooth sauce we know it can be!

Close up of Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese

Can I make baked macaroni and cheese ahead of time?

Guys, I really really want to tell you yes. I know how great it is to have a side dish or meal ready to go in the freezer for holidays or busy weeknights. The most truthful answer is…sort of.

When I was testing, I found the recipe was at its very best when assembled, baked, and eaten right away. That said, the sauce held up really well to reheating in the microwave or oven without becoming ultra dry or curdling. It likely won’t be as good made ahead, but if needed you can assemble the dish, refrigerate without the crumb topping, and then bake the next day and still have a pretty darn amazing baked mac and cheese.

Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese in a cast iron skillet with panko topping

What should I serve with creamy baked mac and cheese?

For a weeknight dinner, I like to pair this with That Good Salad or a side of peas and applesauce (<<< my toddler’s favorite).

At cookouts, it’s the perfect compliment to Grilled Skirt Steak, the best hot dogs, or Cajun Burgers.

Of course, this is also a staple at holiday gatherings. Paired with all your other favorite Thanksgiving dishes, this mac can definitely feed (and delight!) a crowd.

Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese with a wooden spoon

Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese with Panko Crumb Topping

Yield: 6-8
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes

Ultra creamy, rich baked mac and cheese with a crispy Panko crumb topping.

Ingredients

For the pasta:

  • 2 cups (8 ounces) sturdy macaroni noodles
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  • 2 cups milk (whole or 2%)
  • 3/4 cup half and half
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup American cheese
  • 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese

For the topping:

  • 1/2 cup cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 2 Tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
  • Pinch salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, optional

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a casserole dish with butter. 8 inch squares, an 8 inch round cast iron, or a shallow oval baking dish all work well for this.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni noodles and cook, removing 1 minute before the al dente package instructions. Drain and toss with a little olive oil to keep them from sticking together.
  3. Meanwhile, warm the milk and the half-and-half in the microwave until hot but not boiling.
  4. in a medium sauce pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes or until it's a light golden color.
  5. Turn the heat off and slowly add the milk and cream, whisking constantly as you go. The mixture will look very thick and gloppy at first and will thin out as you add the remaining liquid.
  6. Turn the heat back on to medium and cook, stirring often, until the mixture is thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season with garlic powder, mustard powder, cayenne, and salt and pepper, to taste.
  7. Turn the heat off and add the cheeses in several additions, stirring until melted. Remove from heat.
  8. Toss the pasta with the cream sauce and transfer to a greased casserole dish. Top with the remaining cheddar cheese.
  9. To make the crumb topping, combine the panko, 2 Tablespoons melted butter, Pecorino Romano cheese, salt, and garlic powder in a bowl. Layer on top of the cheese then place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until topping is golden, and edges are bubbly. Serve immediately.

Notes

You can feel free to substitute different cheeses in for the American and Pecorino. Gruyere, Monterey Jack, or Pepper Jack are all great options. 


The crumb topping can be left off if you prefer an all-creamy baked mac and cheese. 


If you're short on time, you can also broil the topping until crispy instead of baking. 

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 545Total Fat: 38gSaturated Fat: 22gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 106mgSodium: 810mgCarbohydrates: 27gFiber: 1gSugar: 3gProtein: 23g

Please note nutritional information for my recipes is calculated by a third party service and provided as a courtesy to my readers. For the most accurate calculation, I always recommend running the numbers yourself with the specific products you use.

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25 Comments

    1. Yes that should work fine! You can leave the crumb topping off (just put it in a ziplock baggie), then add it and bake on site for max crispiness.

  1. This is my go- to mac and cheese recipe! It’s amazing on it’s own, but sometimes I like to change up the flavour. Tonight I added bacon and served with a spinach, strawberry, and cucumber salad (for health). Other favourite add ins include adding herbes de provence seasoning, pulled pork and BBQ sauce, and even taco seasoning. Ultimate comfort food.

  2. I make mine like this all the time.
    I add a little onion chopped kinda fine and add that. Gives it a little bit of a different taste.
    Great recipe !

  3. Made this tonight and they loved it. Used feta and goat cheese because those are the only other cheeses I can find aside from cheddar. Then mixed cheddar and mozzarella with panko crumb toppings.

  4. I made this with Sharp Cheddar and Colby Jack. I added bacon on top and it was a MAJOR hit with the family!!!! It was my first time making homemade Mac n Cheese. Thank you for sharing such a delicious recipe.

    1. I’m sorry if that’s confusing. Add the cheeses for the sauce (1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup American cheese, 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese) in batches until melted. The remaining cheese (found under the topping ingredients) should be saved for the top.

  5. I actually have a question. I wanted to make this recipe for me fiance and dad while also having some leftovers for the week. Do you think the 8 oz of pasta is enough or do you think this recipe should be doubled? It’s my first attempt at mac & cheese & i just want it to be great!

    1. Hi there! I would probably double it if you’re serving it as a main dish and want leftovers. My philosophy is you can never have too much mac and cheese. 🙂

  6. Thank you for restoring my faith in baked mac and cheese! I had only ever known it as dry, mushy and flavourless, but after making this incredible recipe, I now see the light. My whole family is already begging me to make it again (which I will gladly do)! Yum!

  7. I made this last night . It was incredible!
    A little tip, I substituted a little thickly shredded Parmesan cheese to the top before it baked . It baked up very nicely with a golden brown and crunchy top. The taste of the crunchy Parmesan was soooo good ! Thanks for sharing your recipes, I’ll be back !

    1. I absolutely love to hear that! The shredded Parmesan cheese on top sounds like a great substitution!

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