Italian Mac and Cheese ready to eat

Mac and cheese is one of those things that can either be soul-crushingly disappointing (dry, tasteless or out of a box) or make your heart sing.  And thankfully it’s not only super-easy to make from scratch, but as this scrumptious Italian Mac and Cheese shows, it’s easy to change up to suit the season or your taste.  In summertime when tomatoes and basil are plentiful, Italian Mac and Cheese makes wonderful use of them.  Diced canned tomatoes, especially meaty, flavorful San Marzanos are also delicious in this dish.  Between the piques of flavor from the tomatoes and basil, the creamy sauce made with a blend of Italian cheeses and the crunchy panko-parm topping, this Italian Mac and Cheese has everything you could want in comfort food.

Here’s What You Need:

  • ½ cup panko bread crumbs
  • 4 Tbsp butter, divided
  • pinch kosher salt
  • 12 oz dry pasta, such as campanelle, gemelli or cavatappi
  • 4 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 8 oz. shredded Italian Cheese blend
  • ¾ tsp. sodium citrate* (optional, see note below)
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 cup diced fresh or canned San Marzano tomatoes
  • 6-7 large fresh basil leaves, torn in pieces
  • 4 sprigs fresh oregano, optional
  • ¼ cup finely shredded Parm or Pecorino Romano

 

Here’s What to Do:

Make the Topping –

In a non stick skillet melt 1 Tablespoon of the butter.  Add panko crumbs, and stir over medium heat until toasted.  Do not walk away – they go from delicious to ruined in a flash!  Sprinkle kosher salt over toasted crumbs and combine.   Remove from heat and let crumbs cool completely.

Prep the Pasta –

In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water and 1 Tbsp kosher salt to a boil.  Cook pasta according to package directions.  Cook the pasta past al dente.  If you don’t cook the pasta enough, it will absorb too much of your sauce and make your mac & cheese dry.

Make the Sauce –

In a large saucepan (at least 3 qts.) melt the remaining 3 Tbsp. of butter.  Whisk in flour and cook, whisking, 2 minutes  on medium heat.  Whisk in milk, and keep whisking till all lumps are gone.  Bring sauce to gentle boil, reduce heat and gently boil sauce, whisking occasionally, for several minutes to cook the flour.  Turn off the heat and add the 8 oz of Italian cheese blend and the sodium citrate, if using.  Gently stir till cheese is melted.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Put it All Together –

Preheat your oven to 350.  Add the drained, cooked pasta to the sauce and stir to combine.  If the sauce seems too thick, add a bit more milk.  Grease a casserole dish and pour half of the pasta and sauce into the pan.  Evenly distribute the tomatoes and herbs over the top.

putting together Italian Mac and Cheese

Gently add the rest of the pasta and sauce over the top.  Sprinkle the parm/pecorino romano over the top, and then sprinkle on the cooled toasted panko.  Bake, covered, for 25 minutes, then uncovered for 5 more minutes or so, until the dish is bubbling around the edges and heated through.

Italian Mac and Cheese ready to bake

 

A Word About Sodium Citrate –

Sodium citrate is a safe, naturally occurring salt that is found in citrus fruits.  It acts as an emulsifier, and in the case of cheese sauces it keeps the proteins in the cheese from clumping together when heated.  Thus, it gives you a much smoother cheese sauce that is less likely to clump, even when reheated as leftovers.  I use it all the time to whip up a quick queso sauce for nachos and beer cheese for dipping pretzels.  You can also use it to make your own fabulous homemade Velveeta.  Here is a recipe for DIY Velveeta I posted on my old blog.  Sodium Citrate is inexpensive and can be found in specialty cooking shops or online.

Italian Mac and Cheese

Fabulous Italian Mac and Cheese, made with Italian cheese blend, diced tomatoes and fresh basil, and topped with buttery toasted panko crumbs and parm.
Author Elizabeth

Ingredients

  • ½ cup panko bread crumbs
  • 4 Tbsp butter divided
  • pinch kosher salt
  • 12 oz dry pasta such as campanelle, gemelli or cavatappi
  • 4 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 8 oz. shredded Italian Cheese blend
  • ¾ tsp. sodium citrate* optional, see note below
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 cup diced fresh or canned San Marzano tomatoes
  • 6-7 large fresh basil leaves torn in pieces
  • 4 sprigs fresh oregano optional
  • ¼ cup finely shredded Parm or Pecorino Romano

Instructions

  • In a non stick skillet melt 1 Tablespoon of the butter. Add panko crumbs, and stir over medium heat until toasted. Do not walk away - they go from delicious to ruined in a flash! Sprinkle kosher salt over toasted crumbs and combine. Remove from heat and let crumbs cool completely.
  • In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water and 1 Tbsp kosher salt to a boil. Cook pasta according to package directions. Be sure to cook the pasta past al dente. If you don't cook the pasta enough, it will absorb too much of your sauce and make your mac & cheese dry.
  • In a large saucepan (at least 3 qts.) melt the remaining 3 Tbsp. of butter. Whisk in flour and cook, whisking, 2 minutes on medium heat. Whisk in milk, and keep whisking till all lumps are gone. Bring sauce to gentle boil, reduce heat and gently boil sauce, whisking occasionally, for several minutes to cook the flour. Turn off the heat and add the 8 oz of Italian cheese blend and the sodium citrate, if using. Gently stir till cheese is melted. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Preheat your oven to 350. Add the drained, cooked pasta to the sauce and stir to combine. If the sauce seems too thick, add a bit more milk. Grease a casserole dish and pour half of the pasta and sauce into the pan. Evenly distribute the tomatoes and herbs over the top.
  • Gently add the rest of the pasta and sauce over the top. Sprinkle the parm/pecorino romano over the top, and then sprinkle on the cooled toasted panko. Bake, covered, for 25 minutes, then uncovered for 5 more minutes or so, until the dish is bubbling around the edges and heated through.