This basic mac & cheese recipe comes together super quickly on the stovetop, making it a great candidate for any night of the week. It's also a fantastic canvas for all kinds of riffs, add-ins, and toppings.
For a hearty, zesty, main-dish version, try mixing in 2 tbsp Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning when you stir in the cheese in step 4. Then, add chopped greens (such as baby kale) and cubed pancetta (just fry and drain it first!) after you've added the pasta.
If you like a baked mac & cheese with a crust, preheat the oven to 400°F and butter a shallow 3-quart baking dish. Melt 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small saucepan over low heat, or place it in a medium-size microwave-safe dish and heat it in a microwave oven until melted. Add 2 cups panko and 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan and stir until well combined. Transfer the finished mac and cheese from the pot to the baking dish and sprinkle the panko topping evenly over the pasta. Bake until golden and bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it generously, and let the water return to a boil.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until the flour mixture is blond in color, about 4 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk. Increase the heat to medium-high and let come to a simmer, whisking frequently.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and let the sauce simmer until it starts to thicken, about 3 minutes. Add the cream, grated cheese, Parmesan, mustard, salt, and black pepper, stirring until everything is smooth. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and/or black pepper as necessary.
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook it until barely al dente (follow the package directions but stop a minute or two before the pasta is completely tender). Set aside 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.
Whisk the reserved pasta cooking water into the cheese sauce, combining it thoroughly. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to combine. Stir for another minute or two until the pasta is tender and everything is well incorporated. Serve hot. (If you’d like to bake the mac & cheese with a topping, follow the instructions in the author note, above.)