Mac and Pimiento Cheese

Show up at any family reunion or church potluck in the South, and you can bet your sweet tea you’ll find at least three kinds of mac and cheese on the table, plus a couple of pimiento cheese appetizers (probably layered thinly in little white bread finger sandwiches). I love doing mashups of classic foods, and so it seemed obvious to me that pimiento cheese should be paired with mac and cheese. It’s a beautiful, diet-be-danged casserole collision, if I do say so myself.

If you have made any of my other mac and cheese recipes, you know that American cheese is usually the standard in my cheese sauce base. The special salts and enzymes in American cheese are what gives it that ultra-creamy, ooey-gooey meltability, and isn’t that the best thing about mac and cheese?


But pimiento cheese has its own character (namely, it’s mayonnaise-y) and I didn’t want it to feel overshadowed in this mashup. Last summer, I shared the recipe that my husband, Les, uses for pimiento cheese, and it is awesome but not a classic “Southern” style (mainly because it was not drenched in enough greasy mayonnaise). My own pimiento cheese recipe is also shy-of-classic, because I blend together mayonnaise and cream cheese for the base, and it’s probably no surprise that I usually add unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno or chopped pickles. I just can’t leave well enough alone.

For this “mac and pimiento cheese,” which just happens to be my 200th post here on Comfort du Jour, I leaned on cream cheese rather than American in the base for my cheese sauce. I really wanted the smooth, velvety texture of the mild cream cheese to anchor all the cheddar that’s happening throughout the rest of the dish. For the pimiento cheese accents, I used a whole jar of roasted red peppers, drained and chopped into small pieces. Some of them went into the cheese sauce, but the rest found their way into a quick mayo-based pimiento cheese that was layered in with the cooked noodles and cheese sauce before baking. All those dollops gave this mac and cheese that distinctive mayonnaise-y tang that is so signature to a good, classic Southern pimiento cheese.

Oh mercy me, look at that pimiento cheese dripping through that mac and cheese!

Disclaimer warning on this one—there’s a lot of richness in this recipe, and the chance is fair to middlin’ this mac and pimiento cheese will crush your calorie count, so you would do well to consider it dinner all on its own or with a fresh side salad. Here we go, y’all!


Ingredients

Cheese sauce

1/2 medium onion, diced small

4 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

6 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp* (this was most of a standard brick)

8 oz. brick sharp cheddar, shredded* (see notes)

About half of a 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped


Pimiento cheese dollops

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp (the rest of the brick)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

A few shakes sweet paprika

The other half of the 7 oz. jar of pimientos or roasted red peppers, drained and chopped

4 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded (this was roughly a cup)


For assembling the casserole

Most of a 1 lb. package of macaroni or other pasta*

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (ours was seasoned with “chili onion crunch” from Trader Joe’s)


*Notes

I recommend regular, full-fat cream cheese for this recipe. I have found that the light version does not maintain the creamy texture in a heated sauce. For the complete recipe, I used an entire 8 oz. brick of cream cheese, but it was divided nearly evenly between the cheese sauce and the pimiento cheese mixture.

Two kinds of cheddar went into my mac and pimiento cheese, because we like spicy stuff at our house. I used an entire 8 oz. brick of sharp cheddar and half a brick of habanero cheddar. Mix and match to your liking, but reserve about a cup of shredded cheese for the pimiento cheese mixture.

Pimientos are a variety of pepper, and though it is easy to find jars of pimientos at the market, I used a large jar of roasted red peppers because that is what I had in the cabinet. You might even choose to roast fresh peppers yourself—that’s what I usually do when I make my own version of pimiento cheese. If you choose jarred peppers or pimientos, be sure to drain them well and use a paper towel to wick away excess moisture.

I held back about 1/4 of the box of pasta for this recipe, because I wanted it to be extra “saucy.” Classic elbow macaroni works great in a mac and cheese, and I always encourage choosing pasta that is labeled “bronze die cut,” because the surface of the pasta is rougher and holds a sauce extremely well. Cook your pasta just barely to the “al dente” stage, or a bit underdone than you would prefer. When you bake the mac and cheese, it will soften further from the heat and the cheese sauce.


Instructions

  1. Make the béchamel: melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute the onions until soft. Sprinkle in the flour and stir to combine. Cook until flour is absorbed and bubbly. Add milk and whisk until smooth.
  2. Add the first amount of cream cheese to the béchamel and whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the shredded cheddar, a handful at a time, and whisk until smooth. Use immersion blender (optional) to amplify the creamy texture of the cheese sauce.
  3. Pat dry the first amount of pimientos or roasted red peppers, and stir them into the cheese sauce.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350° F, with oven rack in center position.
  5. Cook the elbow macaroni or pasta according to package instructions until just al dente. Slightly undercooked is better than overcooked, as the pasta will absorb moisture form the cheese sauce during baking. Drain the pasta and cool slightly.
  6. Combine the remaining cream cheese and mayo, whisking as needed to create a smooth-textured spread. Add the remaining pimientos (pat them dry first), paprika and remaining shredded cheddar.
  7. Fold the cooked pasta into the cheese sauce and layer about half of it into a glass 8 x 8 inch casserole. Spoon dollops of pimiento cheese mixture randomly over the mac and cheese, then layer on the rest of the pasta mixture. Spoon remaining pimiento cheese over the surface of the mac and cheese, but do not spread it.
  8. Bake the mac and cheese, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the cheesy panko crumbs all over the top of the mac and cheese. Slide it back into the oven for 15 more minutes. Cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Life is good, y’all!


Savory Sausage Mac & Cheese (baked in a pumpkin!)

Oh yes, I did. Working on Comfort du Jour has inspired me to new levels of creativity, and I’m having a great time throwing playful twists onto foods everyone already loves. I have been thinking about the humble pumpkin, and how it has been unfairly pigeonholed into the category of “sweet” foods. Does anyone even remember what pumpkin tastes like without the “spice?” This edible gourd has so much going on, nutritionally and flavor-wise, and I wanted to remind my friends that pumpkin can be enjoyed without all that sugar. My goal with this post is kind of like the old Sears campaign, except that here I’m elevating “the savory side of pumpkin.”

For some time, I’ve imagined making a showstopper like this—I’ve taken the quintessential comfort food, macaroni and cheese, and merged it with the best flavors of Thanksgiving—sausage, dark greens, onions and sage, and then stuffed the whole thing into a sweet little pumpkin. The result is as delicious as it is delightful to look at, from the creamy and comforting texture of a gruyere cheese sauce that’s been spiked with pumpkin and savory roasted garlic, to the warm and rustic flavors of pork sausage, sautéed leafy kale and twice baked seasonal pumpkin.

This turned out even better than I imagined!

To be fair, you could make this recipe with half as much mac and cheese filling as the instructions describe. I only used a third of it in my small-ish pumpkin and poured the rest into a separate casserole dish for later. On my first try, I was leery of using a larger pumpkin, though I will surely try it again. If you don’t feel up to the task of messing with the pumpkin at all, I promise the mac and cheese is worth its weight all by itself. Yum.

This was SO much fun!


These were the star ingredients of the dish, but it was the combination of all the ingredients that made it so special!


Ingredients

1 small pie pumpkin (mine was about 3 pounds)

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

1 medium onion, chopped and divided between cheese sauce and sausage filling

3 Tbsp. salted butter

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

3 oz. (6 Tbsp.) mascarpone (or full fat cream cheese)

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1 cup freshly shredded gruyere cheese

1/2 cup freshly shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

12 oz. box elbow macaroni, cooked to al dente stage

8 oz. seasoned bulk pork sausage (mine had sage and black pepper)

2 heaping cups fresh kale leaves, washed and chopped

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend to top the filling mixture


Instructions

First, I prepped the pumpkin for roasting, which was pretty simple. I followed the same steps as when making roast acorn squash.


The next step was the béchamel, my go-to base for any mac and cheese recipe. You may remember this part from my first recipe post, or from one of my leftover creations, such as my version of mac and greens or the ultra-decadent mac and cheese waffles. Once you master a béchamel sauce, the possibilities are endless. 🙂


My cheese sauce made me very happy. I took a spoonful into the den for my husband, Les, to taste, and he immediately loved it as well. But here’s where things took a slightly disappointing turn. Remember the cute little pumpkin pastas? Well, they were pretty much a mess. In addition to their thick, heavy texture (and the fact that all the pieces fell apart), the primary flavor was starch. I was not having it. You guys know I get pretty excited about the specialty items at Trader Joe’s, but this one was decidedly not a winner. Thankfully, we have another supermarket very near the house, and I hightailed it over there for some dependable elbow macaroni. I’m not willing to “settle” when I’m trying to make a special dish, you know what I mean? 🙂


Moving along to the sausage, and this part was easy! I browned the sausage in a skillet, using a little vegetable broth to assist with breaking up the larger pieces. I added the chopped onion and then the kale, and cooked until the onions were tender and the kale was wilted, but still bright green. It smelled amazing in my kitchen!


From here, the assembly was a cinch. I cooked up my elbow macaroni to al dente stage, which is just shy of done, and still a little resistance to the bite. Thankfully, this pasta came out perfect! Fold in all of the creamy cheese sauce (even if it seems like too much), and then fold in the sausage mixture. I spooned as much of the mac and cheese as would fit inside the roasted pumpkin, and the rest went into a casserole dish for another meal. How much do you wanna bet I end up putting the leftovers in the waffle iron?


The stuffed pumpkin went back into the 350° F oven. It roasted for about 45 minutes, then I turned off the oven and left it alone while we finished a Zoom call with friends. Honest to goodness, this turned out better than I dreamed it would. The flavor was exceptional, and it was so pretty and just plain fun!

This was creamy, satisfying, and absolutely brimming with savory fall flavors!

Want to make this fun fall recipe?

Follow the steps and instructions above, or download and print a copy for your recipe files.