Golden and creamy, this pumpkin mac and cheese recipe is seasonal comfort food at its finest. A blend of three cheeses and a variety of herbs and spices make this main dish or side a crowd-pleaser.
Mac and cheese is a classic for a reason. It’s hard to beat creamy, cheesy, carb-y goodness. You don’t even need a stove top (illustrated by this recipe for Instant Pot mac and cheese).
And while you might not want to mess with a tried and true recipe, if ever you’re feeling like a slight deviation from the original, may I suggest pumpkin macaroni and cheese?
Reasons to Love This Recipe
- Pumpkin puree blends perfectly into a roux-based cheese sauce to lend a complementary, earthy flavor. This tastes like fancy mac and cheese.
- This recipe is similar in taste to butternut mac and cheese but requires much less prep work. Instead of breaking down, roasting, and pureeing a butternut squash, all you need to do is pop open a can of pumpkin puree. This whole dinner is on the table in under forty minutes.
- You have options. Enjoy scoops straight out of the pan to serve, or (optionally) top with panko and bake for a crispy topping. This ultra creamy recipe makes more than enough pumpkin mac and cheese sauce so that it doesn’t dry out while it bakes if you go this route.
- Pasta: You’ll need one whole pound here, but the recipe can be pretty easily halved if you don’t need so many servings. You can use your favorite macaroni and cheese pasta shape, but I’m partial to elbows or shells. Both of these shapes have pockets and nooks to hold all that creamy cheese sauce.
- Cheese: No component of mac and cheese is a true bold flavor so you’ll want a good portion of your cheese blend to be strong. Extra-sharp cheddar makes up half of this three-cheese blend, with creamy Fontina and grated Parmesan rounding things out.
- Pumpkin: Be sure that your can says pure pumpkin puree and isn’t canned pumpkin pie filling. The two are right next to each other on the store shelves and look just alike. The canned pie filling is pre-sweetened and spiced and would not mesh well here.
- Milk: Because of the roux, this pumpkin mac and cheese sauce gets wonderfully thick and creamy with regular milk – no cream whatsoever. I use 2% milk, though you can use your preferred variety.
- Seasonings: Salt, pepper, mustard powder, garlic, and onion are my classic mac and cheese mainstays. Here though I add rubbed sage and dried thyme to play off of the pumpkin. Dried sage can be subbed in, as well as fresh herbs if you prefer.
Since some of the roux steps can be time-sensitive, I suggest prepping a few things before turning on the stove. I’ll combine all of the dry spices beforehand so they’re ready all at once, shred the cheeses, and then set a large pot of water to boil to get ready to cook the pasta.
- Begin by melting four tablespoons of unsalted butter in a pan set over med-low heat. Then sprinkle an equal amount of flour over top. **Also at this time set a large pot of water to boil, then add macaroni and cook according to package directions. We’ll use this inactive time to get going on the sauce.**
- Whisk the flour and butter together until it reaches a cohesive, slightly-thick consistency. Flour and a fat combined together in this way is a roux.
- Sprinkle in the combined seasonings and whisk well. We want to pause and cook this mixture (while whisking) for a few minutes before adding the milk to allow the flour to brown up some, which cooks off the “raw flour” flavor.
- Next slowly whisk in some of the milk.
- At first it will clump up and look like something has gone wrong, but keep whisking, pouring some more milk, and whisking some more and soon you’ll have a smooth, thin consistency.
- Once all of the milk has been added, cook for 6-8 minutes (while whisking!) or until the sauce is thick enough to visibly coat the back of a wooden spoon.
- Once the sauce has thickened, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the pumpkin puree.
- Next add the shredded cheeses to the pot and stir until the cheese melts and the sauce is creamy and smooth. At this point you can take a taste and adjust the seasonings if you like.
- Drain the macaroni once it’s finished boiling. It can be hard to perfectly sync up moving parts of a recipe, but if the macaroni is done before the sauce is ready, simply strain it and stir it around the strainer as needed to prevent it from clumping together.
- Add the cooked and drained macaroni to the pot of sauce and stir to coat it evenly. This pumpkin mac and cheese is ready to serve right away, or can be topped with panko and baked if preferred (instructions to follow).
Baked Pumpkin Mac and Cheese Variation
I tested this recipe with two different methods: all on the stovetop (as it’s written here) and finishing it baked in the oven.
Both were delicious, so it really comes down to personal preference. If you like your sauce the extra super creamy, then I suggest you serve this mac and cheese right from the pan as it’s written here. Buuuut if you don’t might losing a bit of creaminess to gain a crisp panko topping, then you might prefer finishing this in the oven.
- Lightly spray a large baking dish with cooking spray and pour in the mac and cheese.
- Combine a half-cup of panko breadcrumbs in a dish with a tablespoon or so of melted butter or olive oil, then sprinkle over top of the mac and cheese.
- Bake at 350°F/177°C for 15-20 minutes, or until the top is golden in color. Alternatively you can bake it for less time, switching to broil for the last minute or so to crisp up the panko.
- When making a roux sauce with milk, resist the urge to crank the heat to make the thickening go faster. Low-ish and slow-ish is the name of the game. Using too high of a stovetop temperature runs the risk of it starting to boil, which for a milk-based sauce can lead to curdling.
- The blend of cheeses isn’t set in stone. I’d stick with extra-sharp for its punchy flavor, but for the others try experimenting with Gruyere, gouda (the flavor of smoked gouda dip over pasta?…YUM), havarti, mozzarella, or even a little bit of cream cheese.
- No matter which cheeses you go with, I always recommend shredding your own cheese, if able, for recipes in which melting is important. Pre-shredded cheeses often have anti-clumping agents adding that can inhibit smooth melting. It’s the same principle as chopping up a chocolate bar for melting in place of chocolate chips.
- Like most mac and cheese recipes, this one is best (creamiest) served right away. Leftover portions are certainly delicious, but lose a little bit of that freshly-made specialness when reheated.
If you’ve enjoyed this recipe, I’d love for you to leave a star rating in the recipe card and/or a comment review below!
Pumpkin Mac and Cheese
- 1 teaspoon mustard powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¾ teaspoon onion powder
- ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¾ teaspoon rubbed sage
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 ½ cups milk (I use 2%)
- 1 lb elbow macaroni or your preferred shape
- 1 cup pumpkin puree
- 1 ¼ cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 cup shredded Fontina cheese or Gruyere, mozzarella, etc.
- ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano
- Grated nutmeg for serving (optional)
- Add mustard powder, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, rubbed sage, black pepper, and thyme to a small bowl and stir to combine. Set aside for now. Doing this ahead of time simplifies things when making the roux.
- Set a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add macaroni and cook according to the al dente time listed on the package (usually 1 minute less than the standard listed time — large elbows take 6 minutes total). Once done, drain and add the macaroni back to the pot. Keep warm if the sauce isn't done yet and stir often to prevent clumping. Continue on with the recipe steps while the water comes to a boil.
- Add butter to a large pan set over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, sprinkle in flour while whisking, then whisk in the spices that you combined earlier. Continue to whisk and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Next, whisk while slowly pouring in the milk. In the beginning it will glob up, but the mixture will thin out as additional milk is added. Once all of the milk is whisked in, continue to stir and cook for 6-8 minutes, or until the sauce can thickly coat the back of a wooden spoon.
- Once the sauce has thickened, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the pumpkin puree and the shredded cheeses. If your pan isn't large enough to hold all of the macaroni then pour the sauce into the pot with the macaroni and stir to combine evenly. (If it is large enough you can just add the macaroni to the pan.) Grate nutmeg over top if desired and serve immediately.
- Baked variation: Transfer finished mac and cheese to a large oven-safe baking dish greased with cooking spray. Combine a half-cup of panko with a tablespoon of melted butter or olive oil and sprinkle over the dish. Bake at 350°F until the top is golden (about 15-20 minutes), or bake for a shorter time and switch the oven to broil near the end.
- It can be tempting to increase the stovetop temperature as the sauce thickens to speed things along, but doing so can risk the sauce coming to a boil, which can lead to the milk curdling.
- If possible I recommend shredding the cheeses yourself versus buying pre-shredded cheese, as pre-shredded cheeses often contain anti-clumping ingredients that can interfere with them melting as easily and smoothly.
Nutritional information is provided as an estimate. As it can vary due to many factors (brands used, quantities, etc.), we cannot guarantee its accuracy.