Stop what you’re doing right now, and make this irresistibly creamy, tangy, and spicy mac and cheese. This mac and cheese recipe features a creamy bechamel, cream cheese, parmigiano-reggiano cheese, and tons of pepper jack cheese. An optional but highly delicious crunchy topping of breadcrumbs, cheese, and pickled jalapeños broiled in the oven brings this to the next level.
To me, there is almost nothing more comforting than mac and cheese. When I make homemade mac and cheese for a weeknight dinner, I truly feel like I am giving myself (and my guests – whether it’s friends or family) a warm hug. I know it sounds cheesy (ha!), but it’s true.
I have so many fond memories of stirring a pot of mac and cheese, transferring it to a cast-iron skillet, and layering the creamy pasta with breadcrumbs, a dollop of butter, and more cheese. Depending on my mood, I make bake it or just do a quick broil. If it’s just me and my husband, you can be sure we’ll be eating it right out of the skillet.
I’ve made a lot of different mac and cheese recipes over the years, but, because I’m me, I wanted to develop a spicy version to offset the richness of the cheese.
What’s special about this recipe?
I use a lot of familiar techniques and ingredients in traditional mac and cheese, while amping up the flavor through a few key ingredients.
- A mix of cream cheese, pepper jack cheese, and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses transforms a traditional bechamel sauce into a spicy, salty, and tangy result.
- Choose your own adventure by serving this as a stovetop mac and cheese or taking the optional step of broiling the pasta with a topping of panko breadcrumbs, pickled jalapeños, and more cheese. A quick broil prevents the sauce from becoming grainy or separating while developing a super crunchy topping.
- Cream cheese acts as an emulsifier, preventing the sauce from curdling and adding a bit of tang to offset the richness of the cheese.
What is pepper jack cheese made of?
Pepper jack cheese is a type of monterey jack cheese. Monterey jack is quite mild in flavor, but pepper jack contains chili peppers and sometimes herbs. For example, I typically use Cabot’s pepper jack cheese and it contains jalapeño peppers, but other pepper jack cheeses might contain habañeros.
Ingredients in this recipe
All of the ingredients in this mac and cheese recipe are easy to find in a grocery store – and many are staple, pantry items. Let’s walk through the key ingredients!
- All-purpose flour: Flour is necessary to help create a roux, or a thick paste made with flour and butter, that will serve to thicken the milk and create a nice, smooth base for the mac and cheese sauce. Use a neutral flour; whole-wheat flour, for example, could leave a slightly bitter aftertaste.
- Butter: Butter is used two ways in the mac and cheese. First, I use it to create a roux and thicken the sauce. Second, if I’m broiling the mac and cheese with panko bread crumbs, I will add dollops of butter on top to help brown the topping.
- Whole milk and heavy cream: A combination of whole milk and heavy cream keeps this mac and cheese extra creamy and reduces the chance of any curdling.
- Spices: A little bit of spices here go a long way! I use a combo of garlic powder, mustard powder, and black pepper which add some necessary savoriness to the bechamel sauce.
- Salt: Salt is SUPER important in mac and cheese. A properly seasoned mac and cheese tastes so, so, much better than one that’s bland. Make sure to season the bechamel well, and season again when you finish the cheese sauce.
- Dried pasta: I call for 8 ounces of dried pasta. Feel free to use whatever mac & cheese shape you like. For me, I love macaroni, elbows, shells, cavatappi, and fusilli.
- Cream cheese: 3 ounces of cream cheese help ensure the sauce is super smooth. I recommend using a standard Philadelphia cream cheese.
- Pepper jack cheese: I use Cabot’s pepper jack cheese. You can use your favorite brand of pepper jack — just make sure that you buy a block of cheese and grate it yourself. Pre-grated cheese often has additives that can prevent it from properly melting.
- Parmigiano-reggiano cheese: I add parmigiano-reggiano cheese to offset the mildness of the monterey jack in the pepper jack. It adds necessary sharpness and salt.
- Panko breadcrumbs (optional): If you choose to broil your mac and cheese, make sure to use panko breadcrumbs for the crunchiest topping!
How do I make a creamy, smooth bechamel?
What is a bechamel sauce?
Let’s start with the basics. Bechamel, also known as a white sauce, is a sauce traditionally made from a blond roux and milk. The roux is a paste made of cooked flour and butter. Through mixing and cooking the roux with the milk, the sauce will thicken into a creamy mixture perfect for adding cheese to create a mac and cheese sauce.
How to cook bechamel
First, you will melt butter, then whisk in flour. Let the flour cook until the “raw smell” dissappears and the paste turns from white to blond.
Next, slowly pour in the milk. When you first add milk to the roux, the roux will initially seize up and start clumping, but as you continue to add milk, it will melt into the milk. To thicken the sauce, the mixture needs to “activate” by simmering. As you continue whisking, the simmering sauce will being thickening after a few minutes.
How to prevent bechamel from clumping
There are a few ways to prevent bechamel from clumping:
- Use the right ratio of butter to flour. Too much flour can risk clumping. I use 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour, which works perfectly for this bechamel sauce.
- Make sure you cook the roux long enough for the flour to completely cook through. There should be no raw smell, and the flour-butter mixture will be blond in color.
- Do not add the milk and cream all at once. Instead, while whisking continuously, slowly pour in the liquid a little bit at a time, whisking away any lumps as you do. This will give you enough time and security to whisk through any small clumps.
- Whisk continuously from the moment you start adding the milk. Don’t walk away!
How do I prevent the mac and cheese sauce from tasting grainy or gritty?
A grainy/gritty texture in your mac and cheese sauce usually has to do with an improper roux or cheese technique. For the roux technique, make sure you read all of my tips on how to prevent bechamel from clumping.
The other reason it can be gritty is if you add the cheese when the pot is too hot. Make sure you remove the pot from the heat before adding the cheese; otherwise the cheese will “cook” and curdle or turn grainy.
Swaps, substitutions, and add-ons
- For extra cheddary flavor, sub the parmigiano-reggiano cheese for a nice aged extra-sharp cheddar.
- This mac and cheese is a little spicy, but it’s mild enough that even those with lower spice tolerance can enjoy. Want it spicier? Add some chili powder to the bechamel. You can also add some finely chopped pickled jalapeños to the cheese sauce.
How to make pepper jack mac and cheese
Time needed: 35 minutes.
Let’s take a look at how this mac and cheese is made.
- Set a large pot of water to boil.
Set a large pot of water to boil to cook the pasta.
- Make the roux
In a small dutch oven or medium pot, melt butter. Once melted, add the flour and whisk to combine. Continue whisking until the flour no longer has a “raw” smell and the mixture is blond in color.
- Add the milk and cream
Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the milk and cream a little bit at a time. Whisk away any lumps.
- Simmer the bechamel
Once all of the liquid has been added, continue whisking frequently as you bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 3 minutes, or until the bechamel is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Meanwhile, salt the boiling water and add your pasta shape of choice. Cook until al dente (or as long as desired).
- Season the bechamel
Add the garlic powder, mustard powder, salt, and pepper and season to taste.
- Add the cheese
Remove the bechamel from the heat, then whisk in the cream cheese. Slowly add in the pepper jack and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses, whisking to combine.
- Stir in the pasta
Drain and stir in the cooked pasta. Season to taste. Serve as is, or broil if desired for a crunchy topping.
- Broil (optional)
Transfer pasta to a greased ovenproof cast-iron skillet. Top with pickled jalapeños, breadcrumbs, cheese, and dollop with butter. Broil for 4 to 6 minutes, rotating frequently until the breadcrumbs are crispy and golden-brown in color and the cheese is melted.
Storage and Make-Ahead Instructions
- Leftover stovetop mac and cheese can be stored in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days in the fridge. Reheat the mac and cheese over the stovetop on low until warmed through, adding a tablespoon of milk or two into the pot if needed to make sure everything is nice and creamy.
- Leftover broiled mac and cheese can be stored in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days in the fridge. To reheat, transfer to an ovenproof container and cover with foil. Bake at 350°F/177°C for 10 minutes, then remove the foil and bake until warmed through.
- If you’re serving this for a dinner party or need to make this in advance for any reason, you can make the stovetop mac and cheese a day in advance (but don’t broil it or add any toppings). Just before you’re ready to serve, reheat it on the stovetop on low (add milk if needed to thin out the sauce/keep it creamy) until warmed through. Then proceed with adding the toppings and broil the mac and cheese.
You can definitely use 2% milk instead of whole milk, but I wouldn’t recommend anything lower fat than that.
Instead of the milk and cream combination, you can use all whole milk for a slightly lighter mac and cheese. I wouldn’t use anything lower in fat, though.
If your cheese hasn’t fully melted, the bechamel sauce might have cooled a bit too much after removing it from the heat. When this happens, you can set the pot over the lowest heat possible to continue melting the cheese. Once the cheese starts melting, remove from the heat and whisk continuously to fully melt it. Make sure not to set it over a higher heat, or it might curdle!
Did you try this recipe? I would love to hear your feedback! Be sure to rate the recipe and leave a comment below.
For even more cozy recipes, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.Happy eating! Love, Karishma
Pepper Jack Mac and Cheese
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/8 teaspoon mustard powder
- 8 ounces dried, short pasta, such as elbows, cavatappi, shells, or fusilli
- 3 ounces cream cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 8-ounce package of pepper jack cheese, freshly grated
- 1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, finely grated
Optional broil with breadcrumb topping
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
- 5 to 6 pickled jalapenos, drained of any pickling liquid
- Set a large pot of water to boil for cooking the pasta.
- Meanwhile, prepare the bechamel sauce. Set a 2.5 quart dutch oven or pot over medium heat and melt the butter.2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Make the roux: Once the butter is melted, slowly add the flour, whisking vigorously to incorporate the flour into the butter and remove any dry clumps. Continue whisking, about 2 minutes, or until the flour no longer has a raw smell and the color transforms from white to blond.2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Add the liquids: Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the whole milk and heavy cream, adding just a little bit at a time. Don't be alarmed if the mixture seizes up and the roux clumps; it will smooth out again. Make sure to whisk around the edges of the pan to re-integrate any stuck clumps.1 1/4 cups whole milk, 1/2 cup heavy cream
- Simmer: Once all of the liquid has been added, continue whisking frequently and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low. Continue whisking until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes.
- Cook the pasta: Once the water is boiling, salt generously and add the pasta. Cook according to instructions until al dente (or to your desired texture). Drain and set aside.8 ounces dried, short pasta
- Finish the bechamel: While the pasta cooks, finish the bechamel. Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and mustard powder.Kosher salt, Black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/8 teaspoon mustard powder
- Add the cheese: Remove the pot from the heat, then slowly add in the cream cheese, pepper jack, and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses, whisking frequently until melted. Season again as needed. Serve hot, or proceed to the optional broiling step if desired. Note: If you plan on broiling the mac and cheese, set aside 1/8 of the grated pepper jack cheese for topping.3 ounces cream cheese, 1 8-ounce package of pepper jack cheese, 1/2 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese
Optional broil with breadcrumb topping
- In a small bowl, add butter and place in the microwave in 15-second intervals until melted. Stir in the panko breadcrumbs until coated.1 tablespoon unsalted butter, 3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
- Adjust an oven rack to be 5-6 inches below the broiler element. Turn the broiler on to 'HI'.
- Grease a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with cooking spray or butter. Transfer mac and cheese to the skillet in an even layer. Top with pickled jalapenos and the remaining pepper jack cheese. Sprinkle the breadcrumb topping.5 to 6 pickled jalapenos
- Place in the broiler in 2 minute intervals, rotating once a minute to ensure even browning. Broil until the top is evenly browned and crispy, about 4 to 6 minutes total. Remove from the broiler and serve warm.