Creamy baked macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Classic elbow pasta is combined with a creamy mixture of sharp cheddar, Fontina, and a touch of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and topped with a smoky crunchy panko breadcrumb mixture that is just so darn good.
We've always thought of food as something that, when made with love, has the power to transport a person to another place and time.
For so many, there is nothing more nostalgic than creamy baked macaroni and cheese.
There is something so comforting about the combo of the creamy cheese and the elbow macaroni plus our version includes a smoked paprika breadcrumb topping that adds the perfect crunch, smoke, and flavor.
Our recipe walks you through how to make a roux from butter and flour, plus milk and half and half which forms the base of the creamy sauce and works really well for baked mac and cheese.
We don't use sodium citrate for this recipe (it's an ingredient commonly found in processed cheeses) as it can be challenging to find locally and tends to work better in stovetop mac and cheese recipes.
While mac and cheese can be served as a side dish, we are featuring it here as a main dish, as we do with many of our beloved baked pastas.
Serve baked mac and cheese alongside a simple green salad or garlicky green beans, and you're set.
Or make a feast and add in this pub-style meatloaf with brown gravy!
How to make it
Each number corresponds to the numbered written steps below.
- Preheat the oven to 350f and set the rack to the middle level. Bring a large pot of salted water (2 tablespoons kosher salt per gallon of water) to boil. Rub a touch of butter (to prevent sticking) all over the inside of a (9 by 13") baking dish.
Melt 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a microwave until just melted. Combine the melted butter with 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs, a ½ teaspoon of smoked paprika, and a ¼ cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Set the breadcrumbs aside.
- Grate 2 cups of Fontina cheese, 3 ½ cups of sharp cheddar, and a ¼ cup of Parmigiano Reggiano. Set a ½ cup of the cheddar and a ½ cup of Fontina aside for the topping layer.
- Meanwhile, melt 7 tablespoons of butter in a large pot over medium heat. Whisk in a ½ cup of flour and cook for 1 minute until the flour is dissolved and lightly golden in color.
- Slowly add in 3 cups of milk and 2 cups of half and half 1 cup at a time while whisking.
- Whisk the milk and flour mixture over medium heat until slightly thickened (about 7-9 minutes). The mixture should just coat the back of a wooden spoon. While the flour and milk are thickening begin boiling the pasta. Cook pasta 1 minute less than package instructions. Drain and mix in 1 tablespoon of butter into the pasta and set it aside.
- Once milk and flour have thickened, turn the heat off and remove the pan from heat. Add in 2 cups cheddar, 1 ½ cups Fontina, and the Parmigiano. Stir to incorporate. Season with 2 ½ teaspoons of kosher salt and a ½ teaspoon of black pepper. Make sure to taste test and adjust salt and pepper if necessary. Note: You might need to add more salt and pepper depending on the type of cheese used.
- Add the just drained pasta into the pot and mix together well. Immediately pour into the buttered baking dish.
- Top with the remaining ½ cup of cheddar and ½ cup of Fontina cheese then sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top.
- Cover with parchment paper, then foil (the parchment paper will prevent sticking). Bake for 10 minutes then remove the cover and bake for 5-7 more minutes or until bubbly. To brown the breadcrumbs, broil for the last 1-2 minutes but watch carefully. Let the baked mac and cheese set for 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy! Note: Covering during the baking process prevents the mac and cheese from drying out. If you like it a bit firmer feel free to bake uncovered the whole time.
Top tips for ultra-creamy baked macaroni and cheese
- The cheese. This recipe uses Fontina, Parmigiano Reggiano, and sharp cheddar. The Fontina is a pungent and wonderfully flavorful cheese that we use in some of our favorite recipes, like chicken valdostana and chicken sorrentino. If you can't find Fontina, or prefer something lighter in flavor, opt for gruyere, American, Havarti, or Monterey Jack. These are all good melting cheeses and would be suitable for mac n cheese. American cheese is processed cheese that contains sodium citrate. That will help keep the mac and cheese a bit more creamy.
- The breadcrumb topping. The topping is entirely optional, however, you are encouraged to not skip it because it really is that good. The panko and smoked paprika give this the perfect smoky crunch. You can make extra and serve on the side for those who'd like to add a little more.
- The texture. We recommend covering the macaroni and cheese while baking as it will lock in moisture. Baking it uncovered will dry it out a bit yielding a firmer mac and cheese, which is still great!
- Let it rest. As with any creamy baked pasta, we strongly recommend letting the baked macaroni and cheese sit for about 5 minutes after removing from the oven to allow it to firm up just a bit.
More creamy baked pasta favorites
Baked pasta dishes are definitely some of the most comforting foods and below we've got a few of our favorites. Which is your favorite way to enjoy baked pasta?
- Baked rigatoni with meat sauce - Rigatoni baked with a hearty meat sauce, mozzarella, and ricotta.
- Baked penne with sausage - Ricotta and mozzarella are tossed with penne in a sausage and tomato sauce and baked until crispy.
- Creamy mushroom pasta bake - Rigatoni, Fontina cheese, roasted mushrooms, and spinach are blended with ricotta, thyme, and a hint of nutmeg and baked until bubbly.
- Baked butternut squash pasta - Perfect for Fall, butternut squash, sage, and penne are baked with mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Baked ziti - Meatless version of the classic made with ricotta and mozzarella.
- Stuffed shells - With a spinach ricotta filling and topped with tomato sauce.
If you’ve enjoyed this creamy baked macaroni and cheese recipe or any recipe on this site, give it a 5-star rating and leave a review.
Some people learn by watching. If you're that type of person, you can find most of our recipes on YouTube and our Facebook Page.
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter divided
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 3 cups whole milk
- 2 cup half and half
- 3 ½ cups sharp cheddar cheese divided, shredded
- 2 cups Fontina cheese divided, shredded
- ¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese grated
- 2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
Breadcrumb topping (optional)
- 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup Parmigiano Reggiano grated
- 2 tablespoons butter melted
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
For the breadcrumb topping (optional)
- Melt the butter in a microwave until just melted.
- Combine the breadcrumb ingredients together and set aside.
Baked macaroni and cheese
- Preheat oven to 350f and set the rack to the middle level. Bring a large pot of salted water (2 tablespoons kosher salt per gallon of water) to boil. Rub a touch of butter (to prevent sticking) all over the inside of a (9 by 13") baking dish.
- Meanwhile, melt 7 tablespoons of butter in a large pot over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook for 1 minute until the flour is dissolved and lightly golden in color. Slowly add in the milk and half and half 1 cup at a time while whisking.
- Whisk the milk and flour mixture over medium heat until slightly thickened (about 7-9 minutes). The mixture should just coat the back of a wooden spoon.
- While the flour and milk are thickening begin boiling the pasta. Cook pasta 1 minute less than package instructions. Drain and mix 1 tablespoon of butter into the pasta and set it aside.
- Once milk and flour have thickened, turn the heat off and remove the pan from heat. Add in 2 cups cheddar, 1 ½ cups Fontina, and the Parmigiano. Stir to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper. Make sure to taste test and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.
- Add the just drained pasta into the pot and mix together well. Immediately pour into the baking dish. Top with the remaining cheddar and Fontina cheese then sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top.
- Cover with parchment paper, then foil (the parchment paper will prevent sticking). Bake for 10 minutes then remove the cover and bake for 5-7 more minutes until bubbly. To brown the breadcrumbs, broil for the last 1-2 minutes but watch carefully. Let the baked mac and cheese set for 5 minutes before serving. Enjoy!
- The recipe makes 8 normal-size or 6 very large servings.
- Undercook the pasta by about 2 minutes, since it will cook longer in the oven.
- Covering during the baking process prevents the mac and cheese from drying out. If you like it a bit firmer feel free to bake uncovered the whole time.
- American, Gruyere, Gouda, Havarti, or Monterey Jack can be subbed for Fontina cheese. Basically, any soft melting cheese can be used.
- The breadcrumb topping is completely optional but does give a wonderful texture.
- Leftovers can be saved for up to 3 days and can be reheated in the microwave.
Looks delicious, can it be frozen before baking
Hi Margaret. You can try it, but it will dry out a bit. The pasta will absorb the liquid before it's frozen. You could attempt to rinse the pasta with cold water to shock it, then assemble, but I haven't tested this yet.
I made this today and it turned out perfectly delicious. It looks picture-perfect too with the panko and smoked paprika topping that I ran under the broiler for a bit. Rich!
Hey Catherine. Really glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the comment!
When you say cups of cheese do you mean filling up a cup full or cheese or cup meaning 8oz of cheese?
Hi Chuck. I mean filling a cup. A lot of people will buy pre-shredded and others will grate from a block. A good rule of measurement is a 1 pound of cheese (in a block) will shred to 4 cups of cheese.
I made this recipe tonight and it was absolutely delicious! The Panko bread topping is amazing and just adds to the flavour...Thanks so much for this recipe, will definitely add this one to my regulars!
Thanks, Kate! So happy you enjoyed it!
Made this for Easter dinner was a big hit. My new favorite recipe to share with the family.
Thanks, Christine! So happy you and your family enjoyed it!
I made this recipe as a side dish for BBQ Ribs. I only made half the recipe because we are only three people. It was so delicious and so easy to make. There was some leftover and I almost ate it for breakfast the next day. This will be my go to recipe from now on. I love watching you cook and your recipes are perfect and cooked like a true Italian.
Hi MaryLou, I'm so happy to hear you enjoyed the mac and cheese! Thanks for watching the videos and for the comment!
I made this for Thanksgiving and this is the 1st year that all of the Mac and cheese was eaten. Everyone just raved about how delicious it was. This has now replaced my mac and cheese recipe. I love how simple it was and my 8 year old granddaughter had so much fun helping to make it. Thank you again for another delicious recipe.
P.S. Where can I find the pans to make the homemade pizzas in?
Hi Teresa, I'm so happy everyone enjoyed the mac and cheese and that you were able to include your granddaughter in the prep! The pans are in the shop which is linked from my home page of the website.
I just love your recipes. This Mac and cheese I my go to, love fontina💜
Hi Dee, so happy you liked this one, from one fontina fan to another! 🙂
Made this last night to go alongside ribeyes, and it was a hit! Panko topping was *chefs kiss!*
Thank you for another great recipe!
Hi Melissa, so happy you enjoyed this one! Thanks for the comment!
Can I use only American Cheese. What would the measurement be for only American Cheese. Have a family who only likes American cheese or mild cheddar.
Hi Danina, You can use just American cheese with the same proportions though we haven't tested it and are not sure about the final taste. Good luck!
I have a family of picky eaters. Only will eat American Cheese and mild cheddar. How would I adapt this recipe. How much all American or a combo of the two cheeses? Cannot wait to try this. I am smacking my lips.
Hi Danita, thanks for the comment. I haven't tested the recipe with only American and cheddar, but I'm pretty sure it would work provided you use the same amount of cheese as I've used here.
Can this Mac and cheese be assembled and baked later or the next day?
Hi Sandi, you can, although it might dry out a little requiring a bit more milk. I haven't personally tested it this way, but I think it could work.