This easy macaroni and cheese recipe uses creamy white cheddar cheese and gets a burst of color from homemade arugula pesto!
We're adding a pop of color to an old favorite today with this creamy white cheddar and arugula pesto mac and cheese! This recipe is ready in less than an hour on the stovetop: It's perfect straight out of the pan or baked with a layer of buttery bread crumbs on top.
A note about the pesto
We're using our favorite arugula pesto in this macaroni and cheese sauce: it gives our sauce a sharp, peppery bite that pairs perfectly with the creamy white cheddar.
If you're not an arugula fan (or if you don't have any on hand!) this recipe is also great with store bought basil pesto, cilantro pesto - really any pesto you have!
If you're making homemade pesto, use a high quality olive oil here: You'll taste it a little bit in the sauce, so make sure you like the flavor. (We love EXAU olive oils!)
How to make arugula pesto
You can find a full recipe with instructions and notes in our Arugula Pesto recipe post, but in a nutshell:
- Add a few big handfuls of fresh arugula to a food processor with two cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, a splash of lemon juice, a handful of walnuts, and a handful of parmesan cheese. (Pro tip: If you're in a hurry, you can leave out the walnuts and the cheese. They add depth, but the pesto still works fine without them!)
- Pulse the food processor a few times to break everything up a bit. Then, with the food processor running, stream in olive oil a few tablespoons at a time until you have a smooth pesto sauce.
A quick mac and cheese primer
There are two main styles of macaroni and cheese: The French-leaning version builds a creamy sauce using a basic stovetop béchamel sauce (a flour-and-butter base - called a roux - with lots of milk). Southern mac and cheese is typically baked and sometimes features eggs or evaporated milk in addition to a blend of cheeses and seasonings.
The "right" way to make mac and cheese is different for everyone. Our mac and cheese recipes have plenty of riffs and mix-ins, and they lean towards the French style: excellent right off the stovetop or baked with breadcrumbs or extra cheese on top.
A few FAQs
Yes! Because we're using a béchamel-style cheese sauce (made with a roux), this pesto mac and cheese keeps well without separating. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days. Reheat on the stovetop in a saucepan or large skillet over medium-low heat, and add a splash of milk or cream to help the sauce stay creamy as it warms. You can also freeze this mac and cheese in an airtight container for 1-2 months without losing flavor.
If you use pre-shredded cheese (these often contain preservatives that prevent them from melting smoothly) or an especially oily pesto, your cheese sauce may separate a bit as it cooks. If this happens, don't worry: Grab an immersion blender and zap the sauce a few times to bring it back together.
Yes! If you'd like to bake this pasta, cook the noodles until they're 2-3 minutes less than al dente, make the sauce as directed, then transfer mac and cheese to a casserole dish and top with breadcrumbs or extra cheese and bake. For specific notes on how to bake mac and cheese, see our Mac and Cheese 101 guide.
This easy mac and cheese gets a pop of flavor and color from fresh arugula pesto!
- ¾ pound pasta (we used large shell pasta)
- 3 Tablespoons butter
- 3 Tablespoons flour
- 1 ½ cups milk
- ⅓ cup arugula pesto (or basil pesto)
- 2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
- Cook pasta in very salty water until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Whisk flour into the butter to form a roux and cook, whisking frequently, for 30-60 seconds or until fragrant.
- Whisk milk into the roux a little at a time, working out the lumps as you go so you have a smooth sauce. Cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally, for 6-8 minutes until the sauce has thickened and come to a low simmer.
- Stir arugula pesto into the sauce and cook another 1-2 minutes to thicken.
- Turn off the heat and add shredded white cheddar cheese to the sauce. Stir for a minute or so, until cheese is fully melted and sauce is smooth.
- Add cooked pasta to sauce and stir to combine. Give it a taste, then add salt and pepper as necessary.
How to make arugula pesto. For full instructions and notes, see our Arugula Pesto recipe post, but in a nutshell: Add 4 cups fresh arugula, ½ cup walnuts, ½ cup parmesan cheese, 2 cloves garlic, and 2 Tablespoons lemon juice to a food processor with a generous pinch of kosher salt. Pulse a few times to combine, then stream in ½ cup good olive oil a few Tablespoons at a time while the food processor runs until you have a smooth pesto (you may not need all the olive oil).
Shred your own cheese for best results. Store-bought shredded cheese is often coated with preservatives that prevent the cheese from melting smoothly. Buy a block of white cheddar and shred it yourself for best results! If your cheese sauce does separate, zap it a few times with an immersion blender to smooth it back out.
Additions and Substitutions. Use basil pesto or cilantro pesto in place of arugula pesto if you like. Swap some or all of the white cheddar cheese for goat cheese, havarti, or fontina. Use our Magic Cauliflower Cream in place of some or all of the milk (if you replace all of the milk with cauli cream à la our cauliflower mac and cheese, you can also omit the flour and butter). Swap up to ½ cup of the milk for white wine or chicken stock.
Keywords: pasta, macaroni and cheese, side dish