This Cavatappi Mac and Cheese recipe is the ultimate in comfort food. It’s also the only baked macaroni and cheese recipe you will ever need. And I know those are bold things to say.
That’s because this recipe makes a heavenly, gooey homemade mac and cheese with a crispy browned top. Once you try it, you won’t make macaroni and cheese any other way ever again. Unless, of course, you have a kid that for some inexplicable reason only likes it from the box.
The best cheese for mac and cheese
The best macaroni and cheese recipes combine cheeses with one of two key characteristics. Cheeses for macaroni and cheese should melt into a smooth, creamy sauce. Some of the best melting cheeses are cheddar, mozzarella, Gruyere, fontina, and soft cheeses like Brie.
The second critical characteristic is that the best cheese for macaroni cheese should add flavor. Sharp cheddar and Parmesan are classic choices, but blue cheeses could also be delicious additions.
Tip from the wise quacker: if you have time, it’s always best to grate your own cheese rather than buying pre-shredded cheese. Whole cheeses are cheaper, don’t have the preservatives found in pre-shredded cheese packs, and just taste better. You can save time by using a food processor to shred the pound of cheese.
Please see the recipe card below for complete information on ingredients and quantities.
Variations and substitutions
- Use low fat milk instead of whole milk or skip the cream to reduce fat content. Your cavatappi baked macaroni and cheese will, of course, be less rich.
- Make it even healthier by using cauliflower instead of pasta.
- Use elbow macaroni instead of cavatappi for a traditional macaroni and cheese. Or sub penne or any other short pasta. I’ve become a huge fan of cascatelli, the new pasta shape created by Dan Pashman of the Sporkful podcast.
- Substitute a gluten-free pasta like one made with chickpea flour.
- Add a vegetable like spinach or cooked pumpkin or squash when you mix the cavatappi and cheese sauce together.
Recipe tips and tricks
This recipe is adapted from Chef Edouardo Jordan’s recipe for macaroni and cheese. I had always made macaroni and cheese like lasagna, following the “bake until bubbly” method. It always resulted in a dry casserole.
Not with this recipe. You get a super creamy sauce by quickly broiling instead of baking.
Making the cheese sauce
Homemade macaroni and cheese starts with a béchamel, one of the so-called mother sauces. Béchamel is made by thickening milk or cream with a white roux.
Step 1: To make a roux, melt butter in a small saucepan. Then add the flour, stirring constantly until it has slightly darkened and smells toasty (Panel #1, below).
Step 2: Add the whole milk and heavy cream and continue stirring over low heat until the sauce has thickened. You should be able to draw a line with your finger on your spatula (Panel #2).
Step 3: Off the heat, add in about two-thirds of the shredded cheese mixture, reserving the remainder to put on top of the casserole dish (Panel #3 above). Stir in the cheese, paprika, salt and black pepper (Panel #4). Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking.
Mac and cheese assembly
Step 4: While you are making the cheese sauce, set a large pot of water to boil. Then salt your water, and cook the pasta according to the package directions.
If you are tasting it to see if it has reached al dente, just please be careful not to burn yourself. Because cavatappi are hollow, there may be a bit of boiling water inside the pasta.
Step 5: Mix it all together and turn out into a 9 by 13 broiler safe pan. Jordan suggests spreading it out into as thin a layer as possible in multiple cast iron pans.
Step 6: Add the reserved cheese and broil until the top is as brown as you like it. Make sure to watch it so your cavatappi- pasta mac and cheese doesn’t burn. Serve immediately!
What to serve with mac and cheese
- Serve the cavatappi mac and cheese as a side dish to simple pan-roasted chicken breasts, a one-pan bourbon apple pork tenderloin, taco meatloaf, or BBQ chicken meatballs.
- Go lighter. Serve this dish as a main course with a green vegetable and hearty salad like this rainbow salad or peach burrata Caprese.
- For wine, try a viognier, which is often said to be the white wine for red wine lovers. If you want a red, pick a light to medium bodied Beaujolais or pinot noir. Or a dry martini is never the wrong choice.
The best cheese is the one you like. You can sub in any cheese you like as long as it melts. It’s just generally best to use a combination of two or three cheeses. But you can always add back the camembert from the original recipe and make a 4 cheese mac and cheese. Or use, brie or feta or even a blue cheese, if that’s what you love.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. If you reheat it using the microwaver or stovetop, you might need to add a splash of milk or cream.
It’s never as good as when it’s made fresh, but, yes, you can freeze leftovers in an airtight container. Reheat it in the oven in a casserole pan with a bit of water, covered in foil.
Love this recipe? Please leave a 5-heart 💜💜💜💜💜 rating in the recipe card below. Let me know how much you loved it, or any problems you had, in the comments section further down.
Cavatappi Mac and Cheese
- Food processor for grating cheese optional
- 8 ounces sharp cheddar or other cheddar cheese give or take to total one pound or 16 ounces of cheese
- 5 ounces gruyere or other Swiss cheese give or take
- 3 ounces Parmesan give or take
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ¼ cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup cream
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon salt plus more to taste and more for the pasta water
- ⅙ teaspoon black pepper plus more to taste
- 1 pound cavatappi or other short pasta like penne or macaroni
- Start the water for the pasta and turn the oven to broil. Eventually, when the pot comes to a boil, add salt, let it come to boil again, and cook the pasta to al dente.1 pound cavatappi
- Meanwhile, cut up the cheese into cubes and blitz in the food processor.8 ounces sharp cheddar or other cheddar cheese, 3 ounces Parmesan, 5 ounces gruyere or other Swiss cheese
- Make the cheese sauce. In a medium size saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat, then add the flour, whisking constantly to make a roux.4 tablespoons butter, ¼ cup all purpose flour
- Slowly pour in the milk and cream, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thickened until it coats the back of a spoon.1 cup milk, 1 cup cream
- Add in about two thirds of the cheese, reserving enough to top your pan. Then add the paprika, salt and pepper. Taste and then adjust the salt and pepper as needed.½ teaspoon smoked paprika, ¼ teaspoon salt, ⅙ teaspoon black pepper
- When the pasta has finished cooking, drain the pasta and return it to the pasta pot. Add the cheese sauce to the pasta and then mix them together in the pasta pot.
- Pour the mixture into a 9 inch by 13 inch glass pyrex or other baking pan or casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese and slide the pan under the broiler until browned to desired brownness, about 5 to 10 minutes, watching it carefully so it does not burn.
Are you an adventurous home cook looking for inspiration in your weeknight meals and weekend baking?