Cheesy Pasta Gratin is packed with aldente campanelle pasta, nutty parmesan cheese, sharp white cheddar, and just enough creamy to make the most luxurious, cheesy, thick sauce. It’s so simple (only five ingredients!), and comes together very quickly.
Cheesy Pasta Gratin
I don’t know what Friday means to you, but to me means there’s an official invitation to enjoy a cocktail or two and an open door to indulge in my favorite foods. Sometimes that means a juicy cheeseburger with fries and a slightly dirty martini. Some days I crave a giant St. Louis-style pizza an IPA. Today, that invitation means free reign to sip on a glass of rosé and dive head first into this cheesy pasta gratin.
Now, I don’t want you guys to get a pasta gratin confused with a classic mac and cheese. Because this is not your average batch of Mac. While they do share some of the same elements – pasta, cheese, and cream – they are slightly different. A pasta gratin is more cheese-forward, instead of sauce-forward, if that makes sense. For me, I want the focus of this pasta gratin to be the aldente pasta and the gooey, stringy cheese, not a super creamy sauce as we usually have in a Mac and cheese.
Pasta gratin is simple. There’s no béchamel, or fancy broccoli cheddar concoction. Just a big casserole of aldente noodles, luxurious heavy cream, nutty parmesan cheese, and sharp cheddar cheddar all baked together until gooey and creamy in the middle and crispy and brown on the top.
Ingredients in our Cheesy Pasta Gratin
Pasta. You can use virtually any pasta you want here except a long-stranded pasta. I let Teddy pick out the pasta since he typically dives into foods he feel like he chose to eat. He went with a campanelle (a squiggly bell-shaped pasta with a hollow sauce for catching sauce), which I think was a lovely choice. It clings to cheese and soaks up the cream wonderfully, but a good campanelle substitute would be penne, elbows, bowties, or cellentani.
Cheddar cheese. I use a super sharp white cheddar cheese, but any sharp cheddar will work.
Parmesan cheese. If you can find it, I like to use parmigiano reggiano, but any aged parmesan is great. I can usually find freshly grated good-quality parmesan cheese in the fancy cheese section at my grocery store, but DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT use grated parmesan cheese from the can. Your gratin will not turn out if you use a sub-par parmesan cheese.
Heavy cream. Ok, so heavy cream is aggressive. I know. But because we use heavy cream, you don’t have to make a béchamel of sorts. While the pasta bakes, the cream thickens and melts with these cheese, creating a super thick, cheesy sauce. It’s kind of heavenly.
Dijon mustard. A little bit of dijon mustard is an addition that adds just a subtle hint of flavor that’s almost undetectable.
How to make Cheesy Pasta Gratin
Guys, it’s almost silly to list out the instructions for this pasta gratin, because it’s so darn easy.
Cook the pasta. Because the pasta is going to cook for a good amount of time in the oven, you barely want to cook the pasta, about 5-6 minutes before draining. Drain the pasta.
Pour the cream into the pot you cooked the pasta in and add the salt and dijon. Whisk to combine. Add the pasta back to the pot and toss.
Layer it up. Grease a large cast-iron skillet or 9×9 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Add half of the noodles to the pan. Cover with all of the cheddar cheese and half of the parmesan. Spread the rest of the noodles on top and then pour any leftover cream evenly over the dish. Top with remaining parmesan.
Bake. Bake the pasta gratin until the cheesy is brown, crusty and bubbly.
What is a gratin?
At its most basic definition a gratin simply something topped with cheese or breadcrumbs and baked until brown and crispy. For me, a pasta gratin differs from a traditional Mac and cheese because we don’t make a béchamel sauce, and the focus is more on the gooey cheese rather than the creamy sauce.
Can a pasta gratin be made in advance?
Unfortunately no. Once this is baked, it needs to be served right away. If you want to prep is ahead of time. You could cook the pasta for the five to six minutes we recommend, cool completely and then assemble everything together when it’s cold or at room temperature. When you’re ready to eat, cook as instructed.
Substitutions and Tips and Tricks for Recipe Success
- Don’t swap out the parmesan cheese for anything, it’s essential here. However, if you want to do something other than a sharp white cheddar, gruyere or any type of gouda would work well.
- It’s imperative the noodles are only cooked a short amount of time, they should be crunch before baking. Because the pasta gratin cooks for a good amount of time in the oven, the noodles will have plenty of time to finish cooking and still have an aldente bite to them.
- For a little bit of spice, add in a few dashes of crushed red pepper flakes
What to serve with pasta gratin
- If you want to keep things light since we’re indulging in cheese, cream, and pasta, this chopped tuscan salad or bowl of butternut squash soup would be the perfect duo.
- Creamy Lemon and Spinach Chicken would be the perfect complete meal to to compliment the cheesy pasta gratin. It’s packed with tender chicken, wilted spinach, mushrooms, and an irresistible lemon cream sauce.
- If you want the perfect kid-friendly meal, this Crispy Chicken Parmesan or these Crispy Baked Chicken Fingers, plus a side of Creamy Peas and Pancetta is all you’d need for you to be the hero at home.
- 1 lb campanelle pasta
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup shredded extra sharp white cheddar cheese
- 1 cup gratedparmigiano reggiano
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a large cast-iron skillet with non-stick cooking spray. You can also use a 9x9 baking dish.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt, it should taste as salty as the sea. Add the pasta and cook for 6 minutes. Drain the pasta in a colendar.
Add the cream, dijon, and salt to the pot you cooked the pasta in. Whisk until combined. Add the pasta to the cream mixture. Stir to combine.
Spoon half of the pasta into the prepared dish. Sprinkle with all of the cheddar cheese and half of the parmesan. Season with a little bit of salt and pepper. Spoon the remaining pasta on top and pour any remaining cream evenly over the top. Cover with remaining parmesan cheese. Season with a little bit of salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake, uncovered for about 15 minutes until the pasta is aldente, the cream is bubbling, and the top is crispy and brown in places. Serve immediately.