A Seriously Creamy, Fall-Inspired Mac and Cheese!
Earlier this year, as we began brainstorming Thanksgiving side dish recipes, Chris enthusiastically suggested mac & cheese. Being the pasta- & cheese-loving gal I am, I quickly fell in love with the idea of a super fall-inspired, super festive mac & cheese for Thanksgiving. (After all, any opportunity to eat mac & cheese is a good thing, right!?)
So that’s exactly what we have here: a seriously rich & creamy pumpkin mac and cheese recipe perfect for any cozy fall dinner, especially the most special fall dinner of them all, Thanksgiving.
What makes this pumpkin mac and cheese recipe so special is its layers of flavor. The pasta is tossed into a creamy pumpkin cheese sauce. It’s made with 3 types of cheese for maximum flavor & it has some warm fall spices folded into it to bring out the pumpkin’s natural sweetness. To take it completely over the top, this pumpkin macaroni and cheese is topped with crispy panko breadcrumbs infused with browned butter & sage, adding extra rich fall flavor & the perfect crisp bite of texture against the creamy pasta. It’s savory, lusciously creamy, easy to make, & it’s so freakin’ good!
Pumpkin Mac and Cheese Recipe Highlights
This is truly the ULTIMATE pumpkin mac and cheese for fall. It is…
- LOADED WITH FALL FLAVOR. Each bite is infused with fall flavors like pumpkin & fresh sage!
- NOT OVERLY PUMPKIN-Y. While the cheesiness definitely comes through, so does the flavor of the pumpkin – but it’s not overly pumpkin-y.
- MADE WITH 3 KINDS OF CHEESE. This ultra rich homemade mac and cheese is made with 3(!) types of cheese for maximum flavor & texture.
- FINISHED WITH BROWN BUTTER SAGE BREADCRUMBS. For the best crispy texture & extra rich fall flavor.
There is seriously nothing not to love about it!!! ♡ Read on to learn more about this Pumpkin Mac and Cheese, or jump straight to the recipe & get cooking!
A Quick, Important Note:
Something important to acknowledge before we jump into the details of this recipe is the cultural significance of mac & cheese throughout the South, & especially for the Black community. While this pumpkin mac & cheese is inspired by the soulfulness of serving mac & cheese with a holiday meal, this recipe is by no means an attempt at being an authentic soul food dish.
For real-deal soul food Southern mac & cheese, check out this recipe from Eden of Sweet Tea + Thyme. Eden’s recipe calls for five kinds of cheese, yielding the most perfectly ooey-gooey baked mac & cheese with a browned crust. It will not let you down! (Go ahead & give Eden a follow on Instagram while you’re at it!)
Pumpkin Mac & Cheese Key Ingredients
Creating a rich & balanced baked mac & cheese starts with choosing the right ingredients. The ingredients you need for this pumpkin mac & cheese recipe are a combination of simple pantry & seasonal staples.
The ingredients include…
- Pasta – When it comes to mac & cheese, I encourage using a spiral-y or cupped pasta since it best catches & captures the cheesy sauce. Elbows are a great option, of course, but you could also use shells, cavatappi, orecchiette, or fusilli to create this effect. My personal favorite is DeLallo’s Shellbows. As their name suggests, they’re a cross between shells & elbows, providing the best of both worlds!
- Butter & all-purpose flour – To create the base of the homemade pumpkin sauce.
- Whole milk & heavy cream – The combination of which creates the richest, creamiest mac & cheese!
- Pumpkin purée – Feel free to use canned pumpkin purée (just make sure it’s not canned pumpkin pie filling!) or DIY it & make homemade roasted pumpkin puree. Both work great!
- Fresh aromatics – Garlic, of course, & fresh sage, which beautifully complements the earthy, sweet flavor of the pumpkin.
- Spices – Namely ground mustard to balance the richness of the pumpkin cheese sauce, nutmeg for added warmth, & cayenne pepper for a little bit of heat.
- Cheese – Of course! The most important part!
FAQ: What Is The Best Cheese For Mac & Cheese?
Cheese is undoubtedly the most important part of mac & cheese. I don’t think there’s a single best cheese to use in mac & cheese. Rather, focus on a blend that maximizes flavor & meltability.
For this pumpkin macaroni & cheese recipe, we use 3 types of cheese:
- Gruyère – A great melting cheese with beautiful flavor.
- Sharp white cheddar – For its sharp, tangy flavor. I prefer white cheddar, but if yellow cheddar is most accessible for you it’s a great swap in this recipe.
- Parmesan – Its nutty, rich flavor rounds out the pumpkin cheese sauce.
Important Mac & Cheese Tip! ⇢ When it comes to homemade mac & cheese, always, always use freshly grated cheese. Packaged shredded cheeses are almost always coated in an anti-caking substance to prevent the cheese from clumping into 1 big mass in the package. While it does its job well, it also prevents the cheese from melting into a beautiful, smooth sauce – & that’s the ultimate goal of a cheese sauce, after all!
How to Make Damn Good Pumpkin Mac and Cheese – From Scratch!
Making this pumpkin macaroni & cheese recipe is a pretty standard mac & cheese operation. There are 3 main steps to this homemade pumpkin mac and cheese recipe. (And if you’ve never learned how to make mac & cheese from scratch, no stress! It’s truly a pretty simple dish!
Step 1: Boil the Pasta
2 pasta-boiling tips for mac & cheese:
- Always boil pasta in generously salted water, since it’s the only chance to season the pasta itself. Underseasoned pasta = bland mac & cheese. No good! While we’re at it, a friendly reminder that you should not oil your pasta water. Oily water will prevent the creamy pumpkin cheese sauce from melding into the pasta for the perfect pumpkin mac and cheese!
- Boil pasta 2-3 minutes under al dente. When it comes to baked mac & cheese, it’s important to boil pasta under al dente (al dente cooking time is typically indicated on the pasta packaging). Since it bakes in the cheese sauce for a pretty substantial amount of time, under boiling the pasta prevents it from getting totally overcooked & soggy in the final dish. There’s nothing worse than soggy pasta!
Step 2: Prep the Roux
As the pasta boils, prep the roux. The butter-flour mixture at the base of the cheese sauce, roux is the secret to creamy mac & cheese. The roux in this pumpkin macaroni & cheese recipe is a pretty standard 1:1 ratio of butter to flour. A couple of tips for making roux:
- When you add the flour to the melted butter, whisk or stir constantly to ensure all of the flour is coated in butter. It will clump up immediately but will smooth out as the roux cooks.
- While whisking or stirring constantly, cook the roux for 2-3 minutes until golden-brown, which cooks the raw flour taste out of the roux.
- I like to add aromatics, such as garlic, directly into the roux to intensify their aromatic flavor.
With the roux prepped & ready to go, you can begin building the pumpkin mornay sauce.
Step 3: Make the Pumpkin Mornay Sauce
What’s mornay sauce? ⇢ Mornay is the cheesy sauce that makes any macaroni & cheese shine. You’ve likely heard of béchamel, the creamy white sauce that results from mixing milk into roux. Mornay takes béchamel one step further, adding cheese into the mix to create a creamy cheese sauce.
Gradually & slowly add the milk & heavy cream into the roux, whisking constantly to eliminate any lumps. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened. The consistency to look for is called nappe, a classic French term referring to the thickness at which a sauce coats the back of a spoon. Once thickened, add the pumpkin, spices, & cheese, cooking until the cheese is completely melted & the sauce is smooth & velvety.
At this point, fold the pasta into the mornay sauce & transfer to a baking dish. You’re ready to bake your pumpkin macaroni & cheese!
The Finishing Touch – Brown Butter Sage Breadcrumbs
These breadcrumbs are the extra touch that take this pumpkin mac and cheese over the top! We’re making things super special & festive with a brown butter sage breadcrumb topping.
Yep…BROWN BUTTER SAGE BREADCRUMBS. I mean! (!!) Absolutely heavenly, right?!
As a bonus, this breadcrumb topping is really simple to make. Brown some butter with fresh sage leaves until sizzling & crisp, then add in panko breadcrumbs. The panko absorbs the browned butter, taking on its rich, nutty flavor from the inside out. I toss in some grated parmesan, doubling down on the nuttiness of the browned butter. Extra cheese in mac & cheese never hurt anyone, right?!
Sprinkle the brown butter sage breadcrumbs over the pumpkin macaroni & cheese, transfer into the oven, & bake until melty, bubbling, & perfect.
I cannot wait for you to try this pumpkin mac & cheese recipe. It is indulgent, delicious, festive, & absolutely worthy of a spot on your Thanksgiving menu.
If you do give it a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations!Print
Creamy Pumpkin Mac & Cheese with Brown Butter Sage Breadcrumbs! Pasta is tossed into a velvety, rich pumpkin cheese sauce made with warm fall spices & 3 types of cheese, finished with crispy brown butter sage breadcrumbs, & baked until bubbly & perfect. Perfect for the best cozy dinner this fall, or to serve as a festive side dish at Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving.
for the Brown Butter Sage Breadcrumbs:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 16 large fresh sage leaves
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- ½ cup grated parmesan
for the Pumpkin Mac & Cheese:
- 16 ounces short pasta of choice
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or grated
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 14-ounce can pumpkin puree
- 20–24 large fresh sage leaves, finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
- 2 teaspoons ground mustard
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 12 ounces gruyere, freshly grated & divided (about 2 cups)
- 12 ounces sharp white cheddar, freshly grated & divided (about 2 cups)
- ¼ cup grated parmesan
- kosher salt & ground black pepper, to season
PREP: Before you start cooking, read this recipe start to finish & prep the ingredients you need – measure the flour, milk & spices, chop the garlic, grate the cheese, etc. The breadcrumbs & cheese sauce are time-sensitive & both come together very quickly once you start cooking.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9×13 baking dish & set aside.
- Boil the pasta: Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, cooking 2-3 minutes under al dente (“al dente” cooking time is typically included in package directions). Drain the pasta & set aside.
- Make the brown butter sage breadcrumbs: Add the butter & sage leaves to a medium pot over medium-high heat. Cook 2-3 minutes, until the butter browns & the sage leaves become crispy. Remove from the heat. Add the panko breadcrumbs, stirring to coat in the browned butter. Transfer the breadcrumbs to a medium bowl, adding in the parmesan & stirring to combine. Set aside.
- Make the roux: Carefully wipe the pot used to make the breadcrumbs with paper towel, wiping out any browned butter or breadcrumb residue. Place the pot back over medium heat & add the butter. Once melted, add in the flour, whisking vigorously to eliminate any lumps in the roux. Cook the roux for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, until golden brown. Add the garlic & cook 30 seconds, until fragrant.
- Build the pumpkin mornay sauce: Slowly add the milk & heavy cream into the pot, whisking constantly to eliminate any lumps in the roux. Cook 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened to the point that it coats the back of a spoon (nappe). Add the pumpkin, fresh sage, ground mustard, ground nutmeg, & cayenne, stirring to combine. Add ¾ of the gruyere & sharp white cheddar (1 ½ cups each) & the grated parmesan, stirring to combine. Cook 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the cheese is melted. Remove from the heat. Taste & season with additional kosher salt or ground black pepper, as desired.
- Pumpkin mac & cheese assembly: Add the cooked pasta to the pumpkin mornay sauce, stirring to coat. Carefully transfer the pumpkin mac & cheese to the prepared baking dish. Top with the remaining gruyere & sharp white cheddar (½ cup each) & sprinkle the brown butter sage breadcrumbs over top. Cover with foil & bake.
- Bake the pumpkin mac & cheese for 25-30 minutes, removing the foil in the last 5 minutes of baking time, until the cheese is melted & the breadcrumbs are toasty.
- Serve immediately. Enjoy!
- Make-Ahead & Storage Instructions:
- Make-Ahead: Pumpkin mac & cheese can be assembled up to 3 days in advance & baked off just before serving. To make ahead of time, complete Steps 2-6 of Recipe Directions, above. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Bake as directed in Steps 1 & 7, above, adding an extra 15-20 minutes to baking time, until the mac & cheese is heated through the center & bubbling around the edges.
- Storage & Reheating: Leftover pumpkin mac & cheese will keep, stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to 5 days. Reheat in the microwave for 2-3 minutes.
- Portions: As written, this pumpkin mac & cheese recipe yields a large batch, serving 12-14 generously as a side dish. If you’re serving a smaller crowd, there are 2 options:
- Scaled back: To serve up to 6 as a side dish, halve the recipe. Assemble in an 8×8 baking dish & bake as directed in Step 7, for 25-30 minutes or until the mac & cheese is heated through the center & bubbling around the edges.
- Make it a mini: To serve a cozy crowd of up to 4 as a side dish, quarter the recipe. Assemble in a 9×6 baking dish. bake as directed in Step 7, reducing baking time to 15-20 minutes or until heated through the center & bubbling around the edges.
Keywords: pumpkin mac & cheese, pumpkin macaroni and cheese, fall recipe, baked, side dish, pasta recipes, Thanksgiving, Friendsgiving, Thanksgiving mac & cheese, pumpkin mac and cheese, brown butter breadcrumbs, holiday side dish
Recipe by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Eat Love Eat
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