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Stovetop Pesto Mac (+ Everything I Know About Making Mac & Cheese)

Stovetop Pesto Mac Recipe

Stovetop Pesto Mac with Broccoli
January is a funny month. We’re all motivated to lose weight and get healthy and eat light foods. But the weather is gray and cold and makes us want casseroles and mac & cheese and hot chocolate. I’ve posted some lighter recipes in the past two weeks, but now it’s time for Pesto Mac.

Cheesy, carb-y Pesto Mac.

Yes, the same Pesto Mac I put in my What I Ate This Week last month. Except it’s not the same, because that version was a disaster. I didn’t measure my ingredients when I was making the sauce and it turned out way way WAAAAY too thick. Oops! But now I’ve perfected the recipe. And between working on this Pesto Mac and another mac & cheese recipe for a project I’m doing, I’ve learned a lot about making macaroni & cheese. Like:

Add veggies to make your mac & cheese go further.

Broccoli is probably the most obvious vegetable to add. (They even sell boxed mac & cheese with little bits of dehydrated broccoli!) I also really like adding mushrooms, greens (like kale or spinach), roasted jalapenos or poblanos, cauliflower… anything that goes with the cheese you’re using, really. I mentioned this trick in my Vegetable Baked Ziti recipe–when you add a lot of veggies, you can get more servings out of the recipe. Which a high calorie dish like mac & cheese, this is a good thing!

You don’t need to start with a roux. Really.

I know, this is kind of an unpopular opinion. I’ve posted a roux-less mac & cheese recipe on my blog before and I regularly make cheese sauces without butter. Now, some people say when you skip the roux, your sauce ends up tasting like flour. My opinion is that if you use a good, quality cheese, that’s not true. I like leaving the butter out sometimes to save calories. (This Pesto Mac recipe does start with a roux, though.)

I won’t use pre-shredded cheese anymore.

I have done a lot of experimenting with mac & cheese in the past month, with both bagged pre-shredded cheese and cheese shredded the old-fashioned way–by hand, by me. I think the results are better with cheese I shred myself. Pre-shredded cheese has an anti-caking ingredient added to it and I really think it makes the resulting sauce a little bit off. I’m still using the bagged parmesan shreds in my mac & cheese, but for the softer cheese, I’ve switched to using the blocks of cheese and shredding them myself.

Stovetop Pesto Mac with Broccoli

Mac & cheese is freezer-friendly (with a few tweaks).

Full disclosure: I have not frozen this Pesto Mac, so I can’t say for sure that this recipe is freezer-friendly, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be. But in general, mac & cheese is a great dish for making in advance and freezing. Here’s how:

  • Cook your pasta about 1 minute less than al dente. So whatever the package instructions indicate for al dente, subtract a minute. The pasta will get softer upon reheating, so if you cook it for the full amount of time, you’ll end up with mushy mac & cheese.
  • Make the sauce thinner. The first few times I froze mac & cheese, I was disappointed in the consistency of the sauce–it wasn’t smooth or creamy. The solution is to make a thin cheese sauce. After adding the milk, as soon as the sauce is smooth and coats the back of a wooden spoon, remove it from the heat and whisk in the cheese.
  • Transfer the mac & cheese to a casserole dish (make sure it’s one that can go freezer-to-oven!), top with breadcrumbs and additional cheese, and cover with plastic wrap. The plastic wrap should be pressed right up against the mac & cheese to prevent ice crystals from forming. Cover with casserole lid and freeze for up to 3 months. (Remember, don’t put hot food in the freezer–it should be chilled first!)
  • To reheat, remove from freezer, take off plastic wrap, and cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes; remove foil and bake 15-20 minutes more or until heated through. You can broil for about 5 minutes to brown the breadcrumbs on top.

It’s easy to fake baked mac & cheese.

Toast some panko in a small skillet and sprinkle it on your stovetop mac & cheese. Or top your mac & cheese with some additional shredded cheese, then sprinkle on the toasted panko. That way you get the creamy goodness (and immediate gratification!) of stovetop mac & cheese with the yummy crispy topping of baked mac & cheese. Win-win, right?

So tell me, how do you like your mac & cheese?

Print

Stovetop Pesto Mac

Stovetop Pesto Mac Recipe

Stovetop macaroni and cheese made with fresh broccoli and a creamy pesto cheese sauce.

  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 8 oz. elbow macaroni
  • 1 large broccoli crown, broken into florets
  • 2 c. reduced fat milk, warmed
  • 1/4 c. unsalted butter
  • 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 c. shredded fontina cheese
  • 1/2 c. shredded parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1/4 c. pesto
  • salt + pepper to taste

Toasted Panko Topping (Optional)

  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1/4 c. panko, toasted

Instructions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook macaroni according to package directions until al dente. Two minutes before cook time ends, add broccoli. When macaroni is done, drain immediately and set aside.
  2. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add in flour and whisk into butter; continue to heat until mixture is golden brown, 3-5 minutes.
  3. Slowly add milk to flour mixture, whisking constantly. Once sauce is smooth, cook until slightly thickened (about 3 minutes) continuing to whisk constantly.
  4. Remove sauce from heat. Whisk in fontina and parmesan cheese, pesto, and salt and pepper. Fold in elbow macaroni and broccoli. Divide into bowls and top with toasted panko, if desired.

Toasted Panko Topping

  1. Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add panko and cook until golden brown, 3-5 minutes.

Notes

To make this Pesto Mac into a casserole, after pasta and broccoli have been incorporated into the cheese sauce, transfer Pesto Mac to small (about 9 x 9) casserole dish. Top with panko and additional shredded cheese; bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. If top is not browned, broil for about 5 more minutes.

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72 Comments

  • Reply
    Natalie
    January 19, 2013 at 11:18 am

    OMG looks amazing! Love the pesto in this!

  • Reply
    Kelly @ Texas Type A Mom
    January 19, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    What a great way to include veggies in a kid favorite!

  • Reply
    Courtney Rae Jones
    January 19, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Awesome! Excellent recipe and info! I agree with you – pre shredded cheese never melts well for mac and cheese. One of my fav things to add is dill-havarti cheese to my mac n cheese. Extra yummy!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 21, 2013 at 9:26 am

      I don’t think I’ve ever put havarti in mac & cheese. I should try that!

  • Reply
    Emily Stevenson
    January 20, 2013 at 6:35 am

    YUM! This looks amazing! I can’t wait to try it! Thanks for providing such amazing ideas and for promoting the healthy vegetarian lifestyle. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ I also blog at http://thelivelyvegetarian.blogspot.com if you are interested. You are an inspiration!

  • Reply
    Kathy
    January 20, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Yumm! On a side note, I love those little crocks you have the mac and cheese in… adorable!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 21, 2013 at 9:15 am

      Thank you! I found them when I was on vacation in Charleston. Not exactly a typical souvenir, but I love them. πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Kare @ Kitchen Treaty
    January 20, 2013 at 9:47 am

    This is so great – both the recipe and the tips. I tried mac & cheese without the roux a couple of times, but the sauce was made with fontina cheese and heavy cream – so rich – and I felt like such a pig eating it! Delicious though. πŸ˜‰

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 21, 2013 at 9:14 am

      When I’ve skipped the roux, I usually go the milk + cheese + a little flour route. I can see how cheese and heavy cream would be super heavy! πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    mjskit
    January 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    What a great idea to use pesto in a mac & cheese! Love the idea! Great addition with the broccoli. Awesome recipe!

  • Reply
    Katie
    January 20, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    oh mac & cheese… a weakness. My daughter and I both love it. I make it homemade at least a couple times a month for her. I love throwing in things like broccoli, green onions, bacon, mushrooms & chicken breast.

  • Reply
    Bert Burton
    January 21, 2013 at 3:09 am

    I once measured out and priced the ingredients for making real mac & cheese vs. Kraft and found that I could use Tillamook Black Label Cheddar for the homemade version and it would still be slightly cheaper!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      Wow, I never would have guessed that! Well, there’s even more incentive to make it yourself. πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Sheba
    January 21, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Im going vegetarian for a month, based on this blood type diet and this is my first day and I made this…..first off who knew it was so easy and tasty to eat healthy! Ive already looked at your previous recipes to inspire my meals for this month! ( and even after this trial , Im sure this will remain a favorite ) !

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 22, 2013 at 6:43 pm

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And good luck with your diet too. πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Genevieve
    January 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    It seems like mac and cheese is one of the most popular dishes on food blogs, and yet I’m one of the few who doesn’t really care for it. You’ve almost got me convinced with this pesto version though! I think if I did make it, I would want to add lots of greens like broccoli or kale as you suggested, and the pesto would help make it so that it doesnt just taste like I’m eating a bowl of creamy cheese (which I know for some people wouldn’t be such a bad thing!)

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      My husband was never a fan of mac & cheese either–the cheese sauce is a little too much for him. But he likes it now because I usually make it with a lot of stuff thrown in. So maybe you’d like it that way too! πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    shelly (cookies and cups)
    January 23, 2013 at 9:17 am

    OK, I will not use pre-shredded cheese any more. I totally love the idea of adding veggies to your mac and cheese!

  • Reply
    Brenda Williams
    January 23, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    Great photos of a really awesome dish!

  • Reply
    S
    January 25, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    What a great list of macaroni and cheese tips! I know I struggled to get a sauce I liked just right for years before I had a product I was happy with.

  • Reply
    Heidi @ Food Doodles
    January 26, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Yum! This is an awesome post! I’m always using mac and cheese to squeeze some extra veggies into my kids. I personally think broccoli goes down much easier with mac and cheese, and that’s coming from someone who loves broccoli πŸ˜€ I love the pesto in this, I can’t believe I’ve never done that before, it sounds amazing. Oh, and I love your tip for faking baked mac. Totally doing that!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      January 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

      I love broccoli too, but I looooove it with a good cheese sauce. πŸ™‚ Everything’s better with cheese sauce!

  • Reply
    SweetSugarbelle
    January 26, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    I’m really big on veggies in my mac and cheese! Cannot wait to try this. Looks amazing, Shaina!

    • Reply
      SweetSugarbelle
      January 26, 2013 at 3:30 pm

      I’m really embarrassed I called you Shaina. I was doing two things at once. For the record, I know you’re Kiersten, LOL, but I can’t go back and edit! Oooops! Super sorry!

      • Reply
        Kiersten
        January 28, 2013 at 9:29 am

        Ha! No worries. πŸ™‚ I always cringe at the typos I make when I’m commenting on other people’s blogs. They really need to introduce an edit comment function, right?

  • Reply
    IRENASdots
    January 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    These are so cute! I tried that recipe and it is delicious!

  • Reply
    Mandy
    March 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    Love to pair mac n cheese with brussel sprouts. Sounds weird, but give it a try!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      March 7, 2013 at 12:25 pm

      I love cheese & I love sprouts, so it doesn’t sound weird to me! πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Jessica
    March 17, 2013 at 9:09 am

    We loved this recipe! My husband won’t stop raving about it. I did a few changes. I carmalized onion in butter then made my roux with that. Did everything according to the recipe, then topped with crushed town home crackers and halved cherry tomatoes, then baked. The tomatoes are a must! They get sweet and juicy in the oven.

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      March 18, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      I love the idea of adding tomatoes–thanks for the feedback! πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Jo
    April 19, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Love your recipes, Kiersten. I make mac and cheese using fat free natural yogurt instead of bechamel sauce. It’s not quite the same but it scratches my mac and cheese itch with a fraction of the calories! Love the idea above about putting sprouts in- I will definitely be doing that next time, maybe with some rosemary?

    • Reply
      Kiersten Frase
      April 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      I’ve never tried that before! I make mac & cheese so rarely that I don’t mind the indulgence. πŸ™‚

  • Reply
    Tabitha
    September 28, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    This recipe was great. I used almond milk instead of reduced fat milk and it was delicious. I also added mushrooms and my kids loved it. I did cook the veggies in olive oil before adding them to the mac n cheese. This recipe is definitely a keeper.

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      September 29, 2016 at 9:51 am

      Thanks for your comment – I’m glad it was a hit!

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