Welcome to Jesse Fixes Dinner, a series in which food editor Jesse Szewczyk shares his best tricks for effortless weeknight cooking.
Every year, without fail, fall arrives without warning: Suddenly, you walk outside and the hot, humid air has turned nippy, and the cravings for comfort foods, soups, and pumpkin-flavored everything creep in. But the realities of life also change with the season, and the back-to-school bustle combined with the looming stresses of the holidays and shorter days makes spending time in the kitchen a luxury. That doesn’t mean cooking cozy fall comfort foods can’t be a weeknight affair, and that’s where this one-pan rouxless pumpkin mac and cheese comes in handy.
While canned pumpkin tends to star in a lot of pies, cakes, and other sweets, its earthy flavor can make waves in savory recipes as well, including mac and cheese. Here it lends a rich orange color, subtle sweetness, and luscious texture to a simple one-pot recipe. Unlike most mac and cheese recipes, this version doesn’t require you to make a roux. Better yet, the pasta cooks in the same pan as the sauce, saving you from a sink full of dirty pots once dinner is over.
To make it, start by melting butter in an oven-proof high-sided skillet, small pot, or rondeau that can hold at least 14 cups (an important detail that will save you from struggling to stir the pasta in an overfilled pot). Add garlic, thyme, and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant. Add exactly 4½ cups of water along with a pound of dried pasta, and bring to a boil while stirring constantly. I like to use small shells or lumache so they trap the sauce, but just about any small pasta shape will work well. After five to six minutes the pasta will have absorbed about ⅔ of the water. The pasta won’t be fully cooked yet, but don’t fret: It will continue to cook as you build the sauce.
Reduce the heat to low and add a can of evaporated milk along with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. While you can technically use regular whole milk here, using evaporated milk creates a silky sauce that is far less prone to breaking. Its reduced water content mimics the ultra creamy texture of a Velveeta cheese sauce while allowing you to use whatever cheese you like.
Next, it’s time for the star of the show: pumpkin. Add one can of pumpkin purée and stir so the pasta is thoroughly coated. At this point, a combination of shredded Gruyère (for flavor) and Monterey Jack (for its creamy texture) tossed in cornstarch is added to the sauce. The cornstarch coating is the secret to marrying the liquid component with the cheese to create a silky smooth sauce that is stable and emulsified. This technique helps prevent the cheese from clumping up in the hot milk while simultaneously thickening it up. Once the cheese is completely added and the pasta is fully coated, remove it from the heat and top with additional cheese. Cover with foil, bake for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and broil until browned and bubbling.
The mac and cheese is best served piping hot out of the oven while the sauce is molten and the cheese topping is stretchy and begging to be cheese pulled. And because the sauce is thickened with cornstarch in lieu of a roux, the mac and cheese can be reheated the next day while still maintaining a creamy, velvety texture; an added bonus of the shortcut technique. Whether you’re looking for your next weeknight hero or a low-maintenance side to bring to Thanksgiving, this one takes advantage of some hard-working pantry ingredients and clever cooking techniques for a better mac and cheese that’s not just easier, but also better.