Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese

By Ann Fulton

Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese - all-time favorite recipe with a spot-on gluten-free adaption linked
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This is basic mac and cheese at its best – easy and cheesy with just the right amount of crusty topping!


Do you have a favorite comfort food? Good old macaroni and cheese is my 10-year-old’s usual request and he asked for it several times recently and I hadn’t gotten around to it.

Then, he got sick (twice!) and didn’t want to eat a thing. When he was finally on the mend and his appetite was returning, I knew it was time to make his favorite.

For a fancy mac and cheese, Ina Garten, of The Barefoot Contessa fame, has a terrific recipe. For a great traditional recipe which pleases kids and adults alike, I love this version.

It’s simple yet truly special thanks to the crunchy topping and hint of Dijon. All the ingredients are easy to have on hand, too.

Feel free to use your go-to block cheddar cheese, but for this recipe, I don’t hesitate to use my favorite brand of pre-shredded cheddar. We enjoy extra-sharp (and Sargento’s Double Cheddar is wonderful), but if you prefer a mild cheddar, use that.

I like to put fresh tomato slices under the topping prior to baking, but I have purists in my family. So, I eat my tomatoes on the side. Several people in my extended family must eat their macaroni and cheese with a side of stewed tomatoes. Accordingly, they are sometimes on the menu.

This is also a great time to pull your favorite bag of frozen green veggies out of the freezer, which happen to be extra nutritious since they’re frozen at the peak of ripeness. Easy too.

Christian, however, would be happiest with a mountain of mac and cheese on his plate, and nothing else. This recipe is dedicated to him. And I hope you enjoy it as much!

Bucatini, which is like a spaghetti-length elbow macaroni, is a fun noodle option, although the standard elbows are always a solid choice. Gemelli offers another good way to mix things up. For easier cleanup, add the cooked pasta to the cheese mixture rather than the other way around. Then, you only have one goopy pan to clean!

This is basic mac and cheese at its best – easy and cheesy with just the right amount of crusty topping. A comforting crowdpleaser!

 For a gluten-free mac and cheese–that nobody ever knows is gluten-free!–click here or on the photo below…

This is basic mac and cheese at its best – easy and cheesy with just the right amount of crusty topping. A comforting crowdpleaser!

Classic Crispy Top Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 6 servings
This is basic mac and cheese at its best – easy and cheesy with just the right amount of crusty topping. People can’t put their finger on the secret ingredient, but the tiny bit of Dijon enhances the flavor beautifully. For added convenience, this recipe may easily be doubled, and it freezes well.
  • 8 ounces pasta (my favorites are the traditional elbow, gemelli, and bucatini)
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon each kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 level teaspoon Dijon mustard (resist the urge to use a heaping spoonful…a little goes a long way)
  • 2 cups milk (I use nonfat but 2% or whole are fine also.)
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
For the topping
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs) or coarse dry bread crumbs
  • ½ cup (2 ounces) shredded cheddar cheese (see notes)
  1. Preheat oven to 350℉.
  2. First, make the topping by tossing the panko with the melted butter in a medium bowl. Then mix in the cheese. Set aside.
  3. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, drain and cover.
  4. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a large saucepan and blend in the flour, salt and pepper. Cook until the mixture is bubbly, and then gradually add the milk, stirring while adding. Stir in the Dijon.
  5. Over medium heat, cook and stir until the sauce boils, and then simmer for one minute, stirring constantly.
  6. Reduce the heat to low, add the cheese, and stir until just melted.
  7. Add the pasta to the cheese mixture and toss lightly to coat. Pour into a 9-inch square baking dish (see note), and then sprinkle with the topping.
  8. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and the topping is lightly golden.

• This recipe may be baked in any 2-quart casserole. I like using a 9-inch square pan because it provides a good ratio of crispy surface area to gooey inside. If you use a 9-inch round casserole, which yields slightly less surface area, you may wish to use about ¾ of the topping recipe.

• When freezing, it’s best to do so prior to baking.

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    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Kay, Eight ounces refers to the uncooked pasta. When using macaroni noodles, that’s about 2 cups. Hope that helps!

  1. Victoria

    I really want to make this recipe this coming weekend. Do you think it would work if I used half cheddar and half another delicious type of cheese? If so, what would you suggest?

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Victoria, I tend to be a purest with mac and cheese, but you could mix in some Gruyere or even Monterey Jack. While not a good melting cheese, a little Parmesan would add a different flavor, too. Hope that helps and that you enjoy!

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Gabriela, The flour thickens the cheese sauce, but I’ve used other things in its place–but not masa. (I think that’s what you meant.) An equal amount would probably work pretty well. As an option, you could use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch or arrowroot powder if you have either of those.

  2. Suz

    Do you put the crunchy topping on as soon as you put it in the oven or add it later?
    I have never done Mac & Cheese with a topping like this. It seems it would burn to a crisp if at the beginning.
    Sure would appreciate an answer.

    1. Ann Post author

      The topping is added before baking, Suz. I’ve made this many, many times and it hasn’t burned yet! Keep in mind that everything is cooked when it goes into the oven, so this allows just enough time for the casserole to set and the topping to turn lightly golden.

  3. Genious

    Hi Ann, Looking forward to making this for Thanksgiving. Dumb question…..for the cheese it says, 2 cups (8 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar. Does that mean 16 ounces total amount of cheese or 8 oz total?

    1. Ann Post author

      Not a dumb question, it’s 8 ounces (OR 2 cups) total. I just specify both ways in case people have an 8-ounce bag–then there’s no need to measure. Hope this is enjoyed on Thursday!

  4. Liz

    I made this for the family tonight and its the macaroni and cheese recipe that I’ve been looking for! Delish. This will go on the family favourites list. 🙂

  5. Susan

    Last evening, my nieces and I thoroughly enjoyed the mac and cheese with the panko “crust”! Thank you. thank you, thank you!

  6. Sue

    Made your Mac and cheese recipe from today’s paper 2/15/15 tonight it was so amazing and my son who is 27 who is the only kid I know on the face of this earth who doesn’t love mac and cheese ate a bowl of it and said he loved it. That crunchy topping definitely makes it delicious. Thank for all your amazing recipes I have used a lot of them Still waiting for your healthy makeover of shake and bake mixture

    1. Ann

      What a wonderful comment…thank you, Sue! I especially love the part about your son! I remembered your request and I have the shake and bake mixture on my to-do list. It might take some time, but I will work on a good option!

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  8. Lydia

    Making this now, it’s in the oven… & my house smells like cheesy heaven!! I can’t wait till its done!! I will save this recipe, definitely ! Thank you for this deliciousness !!

  9. grannyfran

    Hi Ann – Mac & cheese turned out wonderfully, so glad I found your site this morning. Am looking forward to trying lots of other recipes and am hoping halving them will work as well as this one did. No leftovers though!!!!

    1. Ann

      Terrific news, Granny Fran! I’m glad you found my site, too, and I look forward to hearing what you decide to cook next! (I think you will find most of the recipes are easy to cut in half as needed.)

  10. violet

    Goodness! I had been trying several baked mac n cheese recipes over the past few months and have just never been happy with the results. That is, until I tried this recipe!!! This recipe is just delicious! I will admit, I tweeked it a tad, I added garlic to the roux and some Worcestershire to the sauce. I also used a mix of cheeses…mild cheddar and some parmesan , as well as mozzarella and spicy cheddar too. The cheese choices were because that is what we had on hand, but turned out lovely! Thank you so much for this recipe… it has become a fast family favourite! I’m making it at the moment for Sunday dinner!!!

    1. Ann

      Thank you for your terrific comment, Violet! I’m thrilled this recipe ended your search and love that you were able to tweak and work with what you had on hand. So glad it has become a family favorite!

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  12. Mary Lou Keller

    It was marvelous Ann! I used two cans of Wild Planet albacore tuna and it made a very filling meal with some peas.

  13. Mary Lou Keller

    I am going to make this possibly tonight and I am going to add some tuna to it to make it a meal. I will let you know how it turns out Ann!

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  15. Terry Mosher

    Just when you think that the 10 Mac and Cheese recipes you have are the “best”, another one comes along….. this sounds amazing. I love the bread crumbs mixed with some cheese for the topping. Now I will have to make this recipe # 11 for the best Mac and Cheese! Thanks for sharing!