Hunting for kid-friendly dinner recipes? Pizza Mac & Cheese is exaclty what you need. I love to break this one out when the kids have new friends over for dinner. As long as everyone can eat meat, gluten, and dairy, this recipe is almost a guaranteed hit. There’s just something magical that happens when the kids’ eyes see those pepperoni slices on top of macaroni and cheese that makes even the pickiest eater want to give this casserole a go. The best part is, parents like it too!
I had this recipe at a friend’s house and tweaked it quite a bit for my own taste. My friend’s original recipe called for jarred pizza sauce, but I find that this quick-and-easy homemade sauce tastes better and is more flavorful. Sometimes pre-made pizza sauce is too sweet for my taste. I like this hybrid that walks the line between a pizza sauce and a pasta sauce for this dish.
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Usually I can whip the sauce up while I’m waiting for my pasta water to boil and the pasta itself to cook. It’s a very easy sauce that just calls for some dry seasonings, but if you have your own favorite recipe, or if you prefer to use jarred pizza or pasta sauce, that can work really well too. The important thing is to get the sauce up to a simmer so it’s nice and hot, although I recommend letting the tomato sauce drop below a simmer before you add the cream cheese in.
Let’s talk about cheese. This is actually a three cheese pasta in disguise. The cream cheese helps form the base sauce and adds a rich, somewhat tangy, and incredibly creamy element that really makes the whole dish sing. It’s not the cheesiest tasting sauce on its own, however, which is where the mozzarella and parmesan come in. Parmesan is one of my additions to this recipe. I felt like I really wanted a sharper cheese punch. Rather than add it to the sauce, I like to sprinkle it on and mix it in with the mozzarella.
Speaking of mozzarella, I make this dish a few ways. If I have fresh mozzarella on hand, I use it in this recipe. I dice it into small cubes rather than grating it like I would the part-skim type mozzarella we’re all used to finding pre-shredded in the grocery store. But generally, I just use the pre-shredded mozzarella off the shelf. It’s delish, melts beautifully, and makes this dish that much easier to whip up.
I make this dish with any tubular pasta I have on hand, and the original recipe calls for macaroni, but I really like it with cavatappi. Cavatappi has ridged outsides that help the sauce cling, and it makes for a nice fork sized bite along with a slice of pepperoni. Penne is another favorite of mine.
Finally, a word about pepperoni. I just buy the pre-sliced cheap stuff I find in the lunch meat section. If you have fancier tastes, please use any pepperoni you wish. Sometimes we buy the tiny tiny pepperoni rounds, and sometimes the larger floppy slices. I even bought turkey pepperoni once. Anything will work, and the package sizes all seem to range between 5-7 ounces but I never notice a flavor difference if one batch has a little less or a little more than another, so just use whatever you can find.