Pumpkin Mac and Cheese with Bacon Panko Topping

Pasta  |  Published Sep 19, 2022  |  Updated Sep 19, 2022  |  By Tawnie

macaroni pasta on in a black cast iron skillet in a pumpkin cheddar cheese sauce garnished with bacon and fresh thyme.

If there is a savory pumpkin recipe I love the most, it’s this Pumpkin Mac and Cheese.

Pasta is amazing on it’s own but it becomes extra amazing when it’s lost in a cheesy, extra creamy, savory sauce. Then when you add the perfect combination of seasonings and top it off with toasted panko breadcrumbs and crispy bacon the entire dish is elevated!

My healthy-ish Autumn twist to this recipe is adding the perfect amount of pumpkin puree for the ultimate savory, creamy and flavorful Pumpkin Mac and Cheese.

macaroni pasta in a cast iron skillet in a pumpkin cheddar cheese sauce.

Another Fall favorite mac and cheese is this butternut squash mac and this no boil mac and cheese with broccoli is a year round favorite!

I have been in love with pasta since I was a little girl and I don’t think that will ever change. That’s why it was so fun to create this feel-good Pumpkin Mac and Cheese. After your first bite all of your childhood memories of enjoying mac and cheese will come flooding back to you.

My Pumpkin Mac and Cheese is simply decadent. The pumpkin increases the creaminess of the cheddar and parmesan cheese sauce, the fresh nutmeg is perfectly subtle and the fresh thyme compliments the toasted bacon Panko breadcrumb topping. This is heartwarming weeknight meal but is also a perfect side dish for your holiday meals.

You’ll love this mac because…

  • The creamy cheddar and Parmesan cheese sauce is filled with pumpkin puree which adds a savory touch.
  • The toasted Panko Breadcrumbs add a surprising crunch to every fork-full of creamy, cheesy pasta.
  • Topped with bacon, for a salty, scrumptious flavor.
  • The floral notes of fresh thyme add a delightfully sweet, peppery flavor to this dreamy, creamy Pumpkin Mac and Cheese.
  • It’s “healthy-ish” because the pumpkin puree adds fiber, iron and vitamin A to this dreamy pasta.

Ingredient Notes

ingredients in small dishes needed to make a macaroni and cheese recipe with bacon and pumpkin.
  • Pumpkin: be sure to use 100% canned pumpkin puree and not the pumpkin pie mix.
  • Shells: I love this recipe with shell pasta but really any small shape works well.
  • Bacon: A thick cut bacon is my go-to. My favorite method of cooking it is listed in the recipe card below. Hint: in the oven!
  • Milk: I love the creamy texture whole milk gives this mac and cheese. But if you have 2% it will work fine too, it just won’t be as decadent. I have not tested this recipe with any other types of milk.
  • Sharp cheddar cheese: Be sure to buy a block, and shred the cheese yourself for the best results. The pre-shredded cheeses just don’t melt the same.
  • Parmesan cheese: same goes for the parmesan. Buy a block and grate it yourself for best flavor and creaminess.
  • Panko breadcrumbs: these flaky breadcrumbs are perfectly toasted and tossed with chopped bacon and fresh thyme to create the perfect topping for this mac.

Step by Step Directions

step by step photos on how to make a mac and cheese recipe.
  1. Cook the bacon. I love doing this by laying down a silicone baking mat on a baking sheet, placing a cooling rack on top and lining the bacon slices in a single layer. They take about 20-25 minutes to get crispy. Set aside to cool then chop into small pieces. 
  2. Make the breadcrumb topping: Heat a frying pan over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring to prevent breadcrumbs from burning, until Panko is golden brown. Add the chopped bacon pieces to the Panko with a pinch of salt and the fresh thyme. Stir to combine. Set aside for later. 
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add your pasta of choice, and cook according to package directions. Be sure to reserve about 1 cup of the pasta water, you’ll use this later to thin out the sauce. Drain the pasta and set aside.
  4. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Whisk in the flour. Gradually whisk in the milk. Add in the nutmeg, salt and garlic. 
  5. Then add in the pumpkin and both cheeses. Stir to combine and add a little reserved pasta water to thin out the sauce. I usually add ¾ cup but feel free to add as much or little as you prefer. 
  6. Stir in the cooked noodles, top with the bacon Panko and enjoy!
macaroni pasta in a cast iron skillet in a pumpkin cheddar cheese sauce topped with bacon panko breadcrumbs.

Tips and Variations

  • Use a different noodle shape! Other great pasta shapes that hold the creamy sauce well are elbow macaroni, small shells, and bow tie noodles.
  • I have not tested this recipe with different milk varieties. Whole milk is the best option for a creamy mac and cheese, 1% milk will make it lighter, etc.
  • Instead of parmesan feel free to use either gouda or gruyere.
  • Stir in fresh baby spinach at the end.
macaroni pasta on a white plate in a pumpkin cheddar cheese sauce garnished with bacon and fresh thyme.

FAQ

Can I make this gluten free?

Yes! This is an easy recipe to make gluten free. Substitute the pasta gluten free pasta, use a gluten free flour like King Arthur’s for the creamy cheese sauce, and gluten free panko bread crumbs for the bread crumbs.

Can I make this dairy free?

I haven’t tested this recipe dairy free. But if you did you’d need to use your favorite dairy free butter, dairy free cheese of choice & dairy free milk.

How long do the leftovers last?

Properly stored, this Pumpkin Mac and Cheese will last 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator.  You can also freeze mac and cheese for up to 3 months.

How can I reheat leftovers?

You can use the oven or microwave. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and a little milk to moisten the Pumpkin Mac and Cheese, and reheat in an oven-safe baking dish for about 20 minutes. Or microwave for 30 seconds – 1 minute or until warmed through.

HUNGRY FOR MORE? If you try this recipe, why not leave a star rating in the recipe card right below and/or a review in the comment section further down the page? I always appreciate your feedback! You can also follow me on Pinterest or Instagram. Sign up for my email list, too!

macaroni pasta on in a black cast iron skillet in a pumpkin cheddar cheese sauce garnished with bacon and fresh thyme.
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Pumpkin Mac and Cheese with Bacon Panko Topping

Say hello to your new favorite savory, creamy and flavorful Pumpkin Mac and Cheese. It's ultra creamy thanks to the sharp cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese and of course to 100% pumpkin puree. And if that wasn't already delicious enough, it's topped off with toasted panko breadcrumbs spiked with crispy bacon pieces and fresh thyme. It makes for a perfect holiday side dish or main!
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Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 55 minutes
Servings: 8 servings
Calories: 420kcal

Ingredients

Bacon Panko Topping

  • 6 strips thick-cut bacon
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 sprigs thyme

Pumpkin Mac

  • 8 oz. medium shell pasta (or pasta of choice)
  • 1 cup reserved pasta water
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • pinch of fresh nutmeg
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • kosher salt, to taste
  • 1 cup 100% pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie mix)
  • 6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, freshly shredded (~1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 oz. Parmesan cheese, freshly shredded (~1/3 cup)

Instructions

  • Cook the bacon: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet pan with foil or a silicone baking mat and place a cooling rack on top. Spray the cooling rack with nonstick spray and then lay the bacon strips on top of the rack in an even row. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until nice and crispy. Remove from the oven, allow the bacon to cool and then chop into small pieces. Set aside.
  • Make the breadcrumb topping: Heat a frying pan over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the breadcrumbs and cook, stirring to prevent breadcrumbs from burning, until panko is golden brown. Add the chopped bacon pieces to the panko with a pinch of salt and the fresh thyme. Stir to combine.
  • Bring a pot of salted water to boil to cook the shell pasta (or pasta of choice). Cook according to package directions. Prior to draining, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and set to the side. 
  • Heat a large cast iron pan over medium heat and melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and whisk for ~1 minute to cook out the floury taste. Gradually pour in the milk. Continuing to whisk until smooth. Stir in the nutmeg, garlic and salt. 
  • Add in the pumpkin, cheddar cheese and parmesan. Whisk until smooth again. Pour in some of the reserved pasta water and whisk until desired consistency is reached. I usually add ¾ cup. The pasta really soaks up the sauce so don’t be afraid of adding too much. 
  • Add in the cooked pasta and stir to combine. Top with the bacon panko and enjoy warm.

Video

Notes

  • Properly stored Pumpkin Mac and Cheese will last 3 to 5 days in the refrigerator.  You can also freeze mac and cheese for up to 3 months.
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Nutrition

Serving: 1serving | Calories: 420kcal | Carbohydrates: 36g | Protein: 18g | Fat: 23g | Saturated Fat: 10g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 7g | Trans Fat: 0.04g | Cholesterol: 52mg | Sodium: 525mg | Potassium: 309mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 5g | Vitamin A: 5161IU | Vitamin C: 2mg | Calcium: 309mg | Iron: 2mg

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