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Cheesy baked Cavatappi pasta with gooey cheese, creamy sauce and crunchy breadcrumbs seasoned like your favorite Thanksgiving stuffing!
This delicious, elegant baked mac and cheese recipe will be a standout on your holiday table.
It combines cavatappi pasta with an Italian-style bechamel sauce and two kinds of cheese, baked with an herby fresh breadcrumb topping.
There’s no doubt about it — whenever I make macaroni and cheese from scratch, my family goes absolutely bonkers for it.
That’s because pasta in any form is our ultimate comfort food. Are you with me?
My love for pasta started when I was just a baby. Growing up in an Italian-American family, one of my first solid foods was pastina (a type of teeny-tiny pasta shaped like little stars) that my mother mixed with milk, butter and a little bit of sugar.
Doesn’t that sound good?! No wonder I grew up to crave pasta as my ultimate soul food.
As a kid, I grew up eating pasta at every holiday meal and Thanksgiving was no exception.
Can imagine how excited I am to create a holiday-worthy mac and cheese recipe using pasta?
I grabbed my favorite pasta shape and a few key ingredients and created a mac and cheese that’s sure to become a delicious tradition in your family too!
The best pasta for Mac and Cheese
Cavatappi resembles elbow pasta noodles, only they’re a bit longer and have an extra curl or two.
Because of its curly shape, cavatappi is one of the BEST pasta shapes to use for making baked mac and cheese.
And with the ridges on surface, the little cups captures the cheesy sauce on the outside as well as the inside. It’s so good!
But I have to admit, next to the white, cheesy, creamy sauce coating the pasta, it’s the crunchy breadcrumb topping that could be my favorite part of this recipe.
Breadcrumbs seasoned like classic stuffing!
The crumbs are inspired by the herby seasonings of the traditional Thanksgiving stuffing my grandma used to make.
My grandmother’s Thanksgiving stuffing was without a doubt everyone’s favorite. She’d make a triple batch, packing some into the turkey and the rest in a big casserole dish — because we all needed more, lol.
You’re probably already familiar with the classic combo of fresh rosemary, sage and thyme. That trio of herbs instantly reminds you of fall and the holidays, am I right?
In this recipe, the herbs release their piney, aromatic fragrances and flavors into the breadcrumbs after they’re toasted in butter. They pair perfectly with the luscious white sauce.
I know from experience that the crunchy, buttery crumbs are even delicious all by themselves as a cook’s snack.
How to make white sauce baked mac and cheese
The first step to making the creamy base for baked macaroni and cheese is to make a basic white sauce — a bechamel — with butter, flour and milk.
I recommend using whole milk because it makes a richer, thicker sauce than lower fat milk.
- After melting butter in a saucepan, stir in an equal amount of flour and cook until it swells and “blooms” in the butter.
- At this point, you gradually add the milk, whisking at the same time to prevent clumps from forming.
- Cook over medium-high heat until you see small bubbles forming on the outside of the pan. Keep stirring until the sauce starts to thicken — this happens in just a few minutes so be sure to keep your eye on it.
- As soon as the sauce looks like a thick smoothie in texture, take the pan off the heat and stir in heavy cream and some grated Parmesan cheese. The sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated a day ahead.
- Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water exactly 6 minutes, or about half the time that your pasta box directions call for. This will ensure that the pasta doesn’t overcook and turn mushy in the oven.
When you’re ready to bake the dish, mix the par-boiled pasta with the sauce and half of the fontina cheese.
Transfer to a 3-quart baking dish, top with the remaining cheese and the toasted herbed breadcrumbs. Bake about 20 minutes and serve hot from the oven.
Baked Mac and Cheese with Herby Stuffing Breadcrumbs
- 5 tablespoons (75 g) unsalted butter, divided
- 1 ½ cups (162 g) fresh breadcrumbs *
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) chopped fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 16-ounce (450 g) package cavatappi, shells or elbow pasta
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups (375 ml) whole milk
- 1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
- ¾ cup (75 g) grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 ounces (225 g) Fontina cheese, shredded on a box grater
- Preheat the oven to 375 (190C) degrees.
- Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch skillet. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat with the butter. Cook 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until the crumbs are golden and smell toasty. Remove from the heat and stir in the thyme, rosemary, sage and black pepper. Set aside. (Breadcrumbs can be made ahead. Store in a covered container at room temperature up to 3 days.).
- Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the flour and whisk to blend with the butter. Cook 2 minutes, until the flour mixture looks smooth and creamy. Pour in the milk and add ½ teaspoon salt.
- Cook over medium-high heat until you see small bubbles forming on the outside of the pan. Keep stirring until the sauce starts to thicken — this happens in just a few minutes so be sure to keep your eye on it. Cook 3-5 minutes, or until the mixture has the texture of a thick smoothie. Stir in the heavy cream and ½ cup Parmesan and remove from the heat.
- Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the pasta, stir and bring back to a boil. Cook exactly 6 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Add half the Fontina cheese to the pasta. Pour the milk mixture over the pasta and stir to coat. Transfer to a 3-quart baking dish. Sprinkle the remaining Fontina and Parmesan cheeses over the pasta and top evenly with the breadcrumbs.
- Bake 20-25 minutes, until the crumbs are golden brown and the sauce is bubbling at the edge of the dish. Serve hot.
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- Breadcrumbs can be made ahead. Store in a covered container at room temperature up to 3 days.
- To make your own fresh breadcrumbs, cut 2 or 3 slices of crusty bread into cubes. Pulse in a food processor until they form coarse crumbs.
Hey, I’m Karen
Creator of Familystyle Food
I’m a food obsessed super-taster and professionally trained cook ALL about making cooking fun and doable, with easy to follow tested recipes and incredibly tasty food! Read more about me here.