The ultimate mac & cheese recipe for fall: 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. This homemade pumpkin macaroni & cheese is savory, rich, creamy & decadent. Perfect for the best cozy dinner this fall, or to serve as a festive side dish at Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving.
Planning your Thanksgiving menu? Be sure to check out Sidesgiving! This year PWWB is doubling down on the BEST part of a Thanksgiving plate…the side dishes! Sidesgiving is a holiday side dish extravaganza, including traditional dishes you already know & love, as well as some new & fun takes on the classics.
Today is a GOOD day! SIDESGIVING IS HERE, & we’re kicking things off today with an EPIC Creamy Pumpkin Mac & Cheese recipe!
This pumpkin sage mac & cheese is 100% inspired by the PWWB Instagram community! Earlier this year, as we began brainstorming recipe ideas for Sidesgiving, Chris was quick to suggest mac & cheese. Having never eaten mac & cheese at Thanksgiving, I laughed his suggestion off at first. But when a number of our Instagram followers kindly pointed out that, while it might not be a part of my traditions, mac & cheese is indeed a traditional holiday side dish in many homes across the country (gosh, *facepalm!*).
And the more I thought about it, being the pasta & cheese loving gal I am, the more I 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’re doing…
This is truly ULTIMATE fall-inspired mac & cheese: a creamy, dreamy homemade mac & cheese made with 3(!) types of cheese & infused with the fall flavors of pumpkin & fresh sage. And while the cheesiness definitely comes through, so does the flavor of the pumpkin…but it’s not overly pumpkin-y.
(…& there may or may not be a brown butter sage breadcrumb situation happening, too…)
It’s savory, lusciously creamy, easy to make, & it’s so freakin’ good.
So even if it’s not your tradition to serve mac & cheese at your holiday table, that might just change once you try this pumpkin mac & cheese!
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!)
Read on to learn more about this Pumpkin Mac n Cheese recipe, or jump straight to the recipe & get cookin’!
Pumpkin Mac & Cheese 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 pantry staples & seasonal staples.
Note: full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.
Pumpkin Mac & Cheese ingredients include…
- Pasta – When it comes to mac & cheese, I encourage using either 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.
- Butter & all-purpose flour – Create the base of the homemade pumpkin sauce.
- Whole milk & heavy cream – The combination of which creates the richest, creamiest mac & cheese.
- Pumpkin puree – Feel free to DIY it & make homemade roasted pumpkin puree or just use canned pumpkin puree.
- Fresh aromatics – Garlic, of course, & fresh sage, which complements the earthy, sweet flavor of the pumpkin beautifully.
- 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?
Undoubtedly the most important part of mac & cheese is the cheese used. 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:
- gruyere – 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 for this recipe.
- parmesan – Its nutty, rich flavor rounds out the pumpkin cheese sauce.
Important note: 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 a damn good Pumpkin Macaroni & Cheese from scratch:
Making this pumpkin macaroni & cheese recipe is a pretty standard mac & cheese operation. And if you’ve never learned how to make mac & cheese from scratch, no stress! It’s truly a pretty simple dish!
There are 3 main steps to this homemade pumpkin mac & cheese recipe:
Note: full Recipe Directions with step-by-step photos provided in the Recipe Card, below.
First, 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, 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 & 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!
Meanwhile, 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.
Lastly, 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 bechamel, the creamy white sauce that results from mixing milk into roux. Mornay takes bechamel 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 special touch that takes this Pumpkin Mac & Cheese over the top…
The breadcrumb topping for this pumpkin mac n cheese isn’t any ol’ breadcrumb topping…we’re making things extra 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 will absorb the browned butter, taking on its rich, nutty flavor from the inside out. I toss in some grated parmesan into the mix, 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.
Thanksgiving 2020: Meal prep, make-ahead, & portions.
In the spirit of flexibility – especially since the 2020 holiday season is unlike any other holiday season we’ve experienced before – all of our Sidesgiving recipes include guidance for meal prep & for scaling the recipe up/down based on the size of your holiday gathering.
Here’s everything you need do know about this creamy pumpkin macaroni & cheese:
- Meal prep / Make-Ahead: Pumpkin mac & cheese can be assembled up to 3 days in advance, stored covered in the refrigerator, & baked off just before your Thanksgiving dinner. See Recipe Notes, below, for step-by-step guidance.
- Portions: As written, this pumpkin mac n cheese recipe yields a large batch, serving 12-14 generously as a side dish. If you’re serving a smaller crowd this year, there are 2 options:
- Scaled back: To serve up to 6 as a side dish, halve the recipe. See Recipe Notes, below, for step-by-step guidance.
- Make it a mini: To serve a cozy crowd of up to 4, quarter the recipe. See Recipe Notes, below, for step-by-step guidance.
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! Happy cooking! ♡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!
- Storage: 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.
- Make-Ahead: Pumpkin mac & cheese can be assembled up to 3 days in advance & baked off just before your Thanksgiving dinner. 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.
- 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 this year, 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
Recipe by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Eat Love Eat
Craving all things pumpkin?! We got you! Here are a few more savory pumpkin recipes you’ll love…
- Creamy, Dreamy Pumpkin Hummus
- No-Stir Pumpkin Risotto
- Hearty Vegan Pumpkin Chili
- Seriously Perfect Pumpkin Cheesecake
- All PWWB Fall Recipes
Prepping for Thanksgiving?
Sidesgiving is here! Check back every day for new festive & delicious holiday side dishes. While you’re at it, go ahead & give @playswellwithbutter a follow on Instagram – we’ll be sharing step-by-step video demos & Q&As for each Sidesgiving recipe. You won’t want to miss it!
To make things even easier, we’re sending the recipes + more Thanksgiving tips to our email friends. Use the form below to sign up to have Sidesgiving recipes delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe below!
Hosting Thanksgiving for the first time? No worries! If you’ve never hosted before, I encourage you to check out 3-Hour Thanksgiving.
Launched in 2018, I created the Plays Well With Butter 3-Hour Thanksgiving Guide with one goal in mind: simplifying Thanksgiving. 3-Hour Thanksgiving is the ultimate guide to your easiest (& tastiest!) Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving dinner yet.
3-Hour Thanksgiving is a free downloadable guide containing everything you need to plan & host Thanksgiving dinner – a full Thanksgiving menu, turkey prep guidance, a grocery list, timelines, prep notes, checklists & more.
Sign up to receive your 3-Hour Thanksgiving Guide. It’s free & easy – simply fill out the form below!
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