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. You won’t make mac 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.
Recipe source and adaptations
This recipe is adapted from Edouardo Jordan’s recipe for macaroni and cheese. I had always made mac and cheese like lasagna, following the “bake until bubbly” method. It always resulted in a dry mac and cheese.
Not with this recipe. You get a super creamy sauce by broiling instead of baking.
The first adaptation is to use gruyere, a Swiss-type cheese, instead of camembert. If you like stinky cheese, I would recommend some camembert.
The second edit was to make it easier. Everyone wants their lives a bit easier.
You can save time by using the food processor to shred the pound of cheese. It’s not important to only have cheddar and gruyere in the cheese sauce and only cheddar and Parmesan on top of the noodles. Just shred all of the cheese together.
Yes, it really does use a pound of cheese. See the FAQs below about selecting your cheese.
And of course, I subbed in cavatappi, which literally means “corkscrew” in Italian. As a curly-headed gal, I’m partial to the shape. It’s thicker than traditional macaroni, holds onto sauces better (like in my cavatappi alfredo), and has a more substantial mouth-feel with each bite.
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.
Tips and tricks
Making the cheese sauce
ProTip: the only slightly challenging step in this recipe is making the cheese sauce.
Homemade mac 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.
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). Next, add the whole milk and heavy cream and continue stirring over low heat until the sauce has thickened so you can draw a line with your finger on your spatula (Panel #2).
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.
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.
The main thing to pay attention to is timing, so you can get the warm cheese sauce and cooked pasta together and under the broiler before they cool. Jordan suggests spreading it out into as thin a layer as possible in multiple cast iron pans.
I use a single Pyrex pan and get it under the broiler quickly, taking it out when the top of the mac and cheese is only slightly browned. Make sure to watch it so it doesn’t over-brown.
What to serve with mac and cheese
If you are serving this as a side dish, all you need is a simple roast chicken or sausages. Or, if you like meatloaf, try this taco meatloaf bowl. If this is your main course, serve with a green vegetable and hearty salad.
If you like a white 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.
Variations and substitutions
- Use low fat milk instead of whole milk or skip the cream to reduce fat content. Your mac and cheese will, of course, be less rich.
- Make it even healthier by using cauliflower instead of pasta in this cauliflower mac and cheese.
- 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.
- Add a vegetable like spinach or cooked pumpkin or squash when you mix the cavatappi and cheese sauce together.
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.
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.
Cavatappi Mac and Cheese
- Food processor for grating cheese (optional)
- 8 ounces 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 short pasta (e.g. penne, 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 or short pasta (e.g. penne, macaroni)
- Meanwhile, cut up the cheese into cubes and blitz in the food processor.8 ounces 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 (some say "until it coats the back of a wooden 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 5-10 minutes, watching it carefully so it does not burn.
- sub out or add a cheese you love
- change the pasta shape to macaroni or other short pasta
- add a vegetable like spinach or pumpkin or squash
If you make this cavatappi mac and cheese recipe and agree it’s the best mac and cheese ever, please leave a comment and rating!
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