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Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese

This Jalapeño Popper Mac and Cheese is one for the books! Ultra cheesy, slightly spicy, jalapeño and bacon-covered pasta with a crispy buttery topping gets baked to pure cheesy perfection!
Course Dinner, Main Course, Vegetarian
Cuisine American
Keyword Jalapeno Popper Mac and Cheese
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 55 minutes
Servings 4 -6 servings
Calories 1072kcal
Cost $15.46

Ingredients

Pasta

  • 3 packed cups (235g) cavatappi pasta Note 1
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Sauce:

  • 4 slices thick-sliced bacon, (or 8 regular slices) diced
  • 3-6 tablespoons finely minced jalapeño pepper Note 2
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (~3 cloves)
  • 1 teaspoon each: garlic powder, onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup white flour
  • 2 cans (12 oz.; 354mL each) evaporated milk (or 3 cups whole milk)
  • 4 ounces cream cheese full-fat, brick-style
  • 2 cups freshly grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese Note 3
  • 1 cup freshly grated pepper-Jack cheese
  • Fine sea salt and pepper

Panko Topping:

  • 2/3 cup panko (breadcrumbs) Note 4
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • Optional: 1 jalapeño for topping

Instructions

  • PASTA: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, generously salt the water and return to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions, subtracting 1 minute. Drain, shake off excess water and immediately add pasta back to pot. Add butter and gently stir until butter is melted. Set aside to cool while making sauce. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  • BACON: Meanwhile, dice the bacon and cook, over medium-high heat, in a large heavy-bottom pot (we'll use this pot to make the cheese sauce) until golden and cooked to desired preference. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon onto a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the grease.
  • SAUCE: Reduce heat to medium and add in the diced jalapeños. Sauté for 1-2 minutes and then add in garlic, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. Season to taste with salt and pepper; I add 1 teaspoon fine sea salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Sauté for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add in the butter and once melted, add in the flour. Whisk constantly, cooking for 1 minute. While whisking, slowly pour in the evaporated milk. Add very gradually so it can thicken. Cook for 5-7 minutes or until thickened properly (Note 5).
  • CHEESE: While sauce is thickening, add unwrapped cream cheese to the microwave. Microwave for 10 seconds, flip and microwave for another 10 seconds. Flip and microwave once more or until very soft.
  • FINISH SAUCE: Add cream cheese into the sauce and briskly whisk until completely integrated and smooth. Remove pot from heat and add in the other cheeses -- Cheddar and pepper-Jack. Stir until smooth (it's okay if it isn't fully melted -- we're baking!).
  • PANKO TOPPING: (optional): Meanwhile, melt butter over medium heat in a medium skillet. Add panko and salt to taste (I add 1/4 teaspoon) and stir to coat. Continue cooking until crumbs become golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside for now.
  • BAKE: Pour the sauce, scraping every last bit of it over cooked pasta (it may seem super saucy, but this will keep it from becoming dry after being baked!). Add in the reserved bacon. Give everything a quick stir and then a quick taste test -- add more salt/pepper if needed. Transfer mixture to a lightly greased 9x9-inch pan. Sprinkle panko topping evenly over pasta and if desired, add a thinly sliced jalapeño on top. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until slightly thickened at the edges and light golden brown on top (don't bake too long or the cheese sauce will dry out!). Remove and serve immediately! Enjoy!

Notes

Note 1: Pasta: If you don't have access to cavatappi pasta, you can try another shape of pasta like rotini or macaroni. Use 8 ounces.
Note 2: Jalapeño: Remove ribs and seeds (or leave them in for lots of heat). Add as much or as little as you'd like to spice preference. When making for my kids, we use 3 tablespoons of very finely diced jalapeño. They can handle a bit of spice, but I'd still say that is fairly mild. To increase spice, add more jalapeño and even a touch of cayenne pepper if you'd like. To reduce spice as much as possible, use less jalapeño and replace pepper-Jack with Monterey Jack or mozzarella cheese.
Note 3: Cheddar: White sharp or yellow sharp Cheddar -- either works and they'll taste the same. Whatever you use, freshly grate the cheeses! For a more Cheddar-y mac and cheese, use Tillamook's extra-sharp Cheddar (it has been aged 15-24 months). Pre-shredded cheese has a cellulose coating that doesn’t melt as well in recipes like this one. To avoid a greasy mac and cheese, take the time to grate your own (or use a food processor with a cheese-grating attachment to do this quickly).
Note 4: Panko: Panko bread crumbs are similar to regular bread crumbs, but they create a much crunchier result. They can typically be found near other bread crumbs or in the Asian food aisle in the grocery store.
Note 5: How to know when cheese sauce is thick enough: The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Stir the sauce, lift up the spoon and immediately trace a line across the back of the spoon with your fingertip. If the line retains a clear track, the sauce is thick enough. If not, the sauce needs to be cooked a bit longer.

Nutrition

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 1072kcal | Carbohydrates: 37g | Protein: 42g | Fat: 85g | Saturated Fat: 48g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 5g | Monounsaturated Fat: 26g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 241mg | Sodium: 1089mg | Potassium: 780mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 20g | Vitamin A: 2337IU | Vitamin C: 18mg | Calcium: 1123mg | Iron: 2mg