There is no such thing as having too many mac and cheese recipes. It is one of the best culinary blank slates, one with endless variations. Heck, we’ve got a good dozen here on the site.
But sometimes taking a chance on a recipe can be a little risky if you’re feeding someone other than an adult—i.e, someone who may or may not politely articulate how he or she feels about the food—and who therefore may or may not eat said food. Generally speaking, kids can make for a tough crowd.
That’s what makes this Pesto Havarti Mac and Cheese recipe from blogger Maria Lichty (and her husband Josh) of Two Peas and their Pod especially awesome.
It’s mac and cheese, but the Havarti makes it silky and creamy beyond belief. And the spinach-heavy pesto lends a touch of sweetness to what’s typically a pretty assertive bundle of flavors: basil, cheese, and garlic.
A Mac and Cheese Everyone Will Love
This particular mac and cheese fits the criteria for what we’ve taken to calling a "unicorn dinner" around here at Simply Recipes: something EVERYONE in the family likes. My kids both liked this recipe—and we had plenty enough for leftovers to share with the neighbors, and for my one son to take for lunch the next day.
The recipe comes from Maria's new cookbook, Two Peas and their Pod: Favorite Everyday Recipes from Our Family Kitchen. It’s loaded with recipes that will make you say, “Oooh I want to make that!” (Chewy No-Bake Granola Bars!) “And that!” (Greek Salad Pita Pizzas!) The recipes are approachable, creative, and full of flavor—they’re make-from-scratch, too, without lots of processed ingredients, which is a bonus.
Variations for Pesto Mac and Cheese
And speaking of variations, Maria says this mac and cheese is “a great blank canvas for all kinds of mix-ins, such as cooked chicken, broccoli, or frozen peas.” If you want to add some texture, turn it into a baked casserole. Just pour the mac and cheese into a 2-quart baking dish and top it with panko bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Give it a quick hit under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the top is golden brown.
Q&A With Maria Lichty
I talked with Maria about her book, cooking for her family, and what it was like putting together a cookbook with kids underfoot—and helping out!
Who is this cookbook for?
Everyone! Our recipes are approachable, made with fresh and simple ingredients, and delicious, that is the most important part. There are healthy recipes and indulgent recipes because life is all about balance . . . and I have a major sweet tooth. (Note: There’s an entire chapter on cookies, be still my beating heart.)
This books leans vegetarian but isn’t vegetarian—how’s that working for your family?
There are lots of vegetarian-friendly recipes because I am a vegetarian, but my husband and boys eat meat, so there are plenty of meat recipes, too! Like I said, this book is for everyone!
What’s the biggest challenge for home cooks?
Time! That is why we make sure our recipes are quick and easy—30 minutes or less.
What’s your advice to tackle that?
We know it is not easy to get dinner on the table every night, but with a little planning and prep, you can make it happen. Our book includes lots of tips and recipes that will help you succeed in the kitchen! We even have a section called "UnRecipes" that we turn to when we are really short on time. These "recipes" can be made in no time and are so much better than eating out, going through the drive-thru, or ordering takeout! Simple food doesn't have to be complicated.
How old are your boys? What’s your favorite way to get them involved in cooking?
Caleb is almost 8 and Maxwell is 5. Our boys love to help us in the kitchen. We turn on the music and everyone gets a job. If they are part of the process, they are more excited about eating, too, which is always a bonus with little kids. And getting them involved means dinner gets on the table faster!
What are their favorite recipes from this book?
The boys love being our chief taste testers and were so helpful in picking which recipes were "cookbook worthy." Caleb's favorite recipes are the Cinnamon Streusel French Toast and the Crispy Bean Tostadas with Smashed Avocado and Jicama-Cilantro Slaw. Maxwell loves the Slow Cooker Meatballs and Our Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies.
What is your go-to “I don’t want to cook but I do it anyway” template?
Breakfast for dinner is always a winner! We usually scramble up some eggs from our chickens (I like to add in veggies), make avocado toast or another fun toast in the Feeling Toasty section in our book, and cut up whatever fresh fruit we have on hand or blend up a smoothie. If you aren’t in the mood to cook, don’t plan an elaborate meal—cook one of your favorite “go to” recipes you know that will turn out and hit the spot. I always make sure our freezer is stocked with dinner options and don't be afraid to jazz up leftovers!
What’s on your dinner prep playlist? You talk about music a lot, and we at Simply Recipes often talk about what we cook/work with, music-wise.
Our boys are the deejays in our kitchen. They love music and are good about mixing things up. They are currently loving Imagine Dragons, Bob Marley, John Denver, and Maroon 5.
What are some of the funniest things your kids said in terms of feedback or the cookbook process—and being privy to that? Kids are always saying funny things!
When they found out we were writing a book, they asked when they could check themselves out at the library—ha! They also started practicing their handwriting, so they could sign cookbooks. The boys were the best taste tasters; kids are very honest. They loved using the "thumbs up" rating. If a recipe didn't get two thumbs up, it wasn't cookbook worthy.
Feeling Cheesy? More Macaroni and Cheese Recipes You'll Love
- Creamy Baked Mac and Cheese
- Quick Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese
- Civil War Macaroni and Cheese
- Broccoli Cheddar Mac and Cheese
- Chili Mac and Cheese
Pesto Havarti Mac and Cheese
Maria says, “I usually make a salad for myself on mac and cheese night, unless this version is on the menu—then I grab a bowl and join my boys. This easy “gourmet” version of the classic is my personal favorite, and yet it takes just as little time as the boxed kind to prepare. It gets its creaminess from Havarti cheese (a soft cow’s milk cheese that is super melty and gooey—you could also use mozzarella), plus a boost from fresh spinach-basil pesto. At first, the boys were wary because their mac wasn’t orange, but after one bite they were yelling for more. Now it’s a family favorite that we all get excited for.”
Excerpted from TWO PEAS & THEIR POD COOKBOOK. Copyright © 2019 by Maria Lichty. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
- For the spinach pesto:
- 4 cups packed spinach leaves
- 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more for a thinner pesto
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (1 large lemon)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- For the mac and cheese:
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups (12 ounces) whole-wheat elbow macaroni (orecchiette also works well)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk, at room temperature
- 2 cups shredded Havarti or mozzarella cheese
- 3 tablespoons spinach-basil pesto (or store-bought pesto)
Make the pesto:
In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients and blend for 30 seconds. Scrape the sides down with a spatula and blend again until smooth. If you want a thinner pesto, add more olive oil. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if necessary.
The pesto can be stored in the fridge in a covered container for up to two weeks, or pour into ice cube molds and freeze for up to 6 months.
Make the pasta:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook just until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Thicken the milk:
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and whisk in the flour to create a paste. Add the milk and whisk until smooth. Increase the heat to medium and continue whisking until the sauce starts to thicken, about 2 minutes.
Add the cheese:
Stir in the shredded cheese and continue stirring until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Fold in the pesto (Note: My kids and I liked a bit more pesto than what she calls for here—about 1/4 cup or so did the trick).
Assemble, heat and serve:
Add the pasta, stirring to combine, and cook just until the pasta is warmed through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.