My kids would eat macaroni and cheese for every meal, every day if I let them. Blue box or homemade, they’re not particular—but my good old-fashioned baked mac and cheese casserole is definitely their favorite. I’ve played around with the cheeses over the years, and I’ve found I prefer a combination of sharp cheddar for its tangy flavor, and fontina or Gruyère for their meltability and stretchiness. Smoked and cured country ham is a real treat to add in here—the salty, smoky flavor permeates throughout the casserole—but our family loves this dish just as much in its “pure” cheesy form.
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- ½ pound (8 ounces) cavatappi, elbow macaroni, or other short pasta
- 2½ cups whole milk
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1½ cups (about 6 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1½ cups (about 6 ounces) shredded fontina or Gruyère cheese
- ¾ cup diced country ham, optional
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- ¾ cup panko bread crumbs
- Heat the oven to 400°F. Grease an 8x8-inch glass or ceramic baking dish or metal baking pan with butter or cooking spray.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, for two minutes less than the package recommends for al dente (you’ll finish cooking it in the oven). Drain the pasta in a colander.
- Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce. Heat the milk, either in the microwave or in a small saucepan on the stove, until it’s hot but not boiling. In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to form a thick paste and cook, whisking occasionally, until the aroma of the mixture is more nutty than floury, 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually pour in the hot milk and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. The sauce will be thicker at this point. Continue to whisk the sauce for 1 more minute, then remove it from the heat. Stir in 1 cup of each cheese, ham (if using), mustard, salt, pepper, and nutmeg until the cheese sauce is fully combined. Stir in the cooked pasta.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish or pan. Sprinkle the remaining cheese all over the top. Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a small microwave-safe bowl in the microwave, then mix in the panko and stir to combine. Sprinkle an even layer of the panko topping over the casserole. Bake, uncovered, until the cheese sauce is bubbling and the panko topping is browned, 20 to 25 minutes.