This creamy baked ham and cauliflower mac and cheese topped with a crispy panko topping, is a comforting dinner the whole family will love! A simple homemade creamy cheese sauce is flavoured with cauliflower and ham, mixed with pasta and then sprinkled with panko breadcrumbs. It’s baked in the oven until the panko topping is golden and the pasta has absorbed the flavourful sauce. Like my popular tuna and cauliflower pasta bake, mixing cauliflower into a creamy pasta bake is a delicious way to serve cauliflower to kids.
Why we love this recipe
- Ham, cheese, cauliflower and pasta – my toddler son’s favourite ingredients. All in one dish. Need I say more?!
- It can be made ahead, making it a great meal prep recipe – either the whole pasta bake, or cook and freeze the sauce.
- Leftovers taste great!
Ingredient notes and substitutions
- Pasta – I often use macaroni, but you can also make this with penne, rigatoni, pasta bows, whatever pasta shapes you have in your kitchen! Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.
- Ham – I like to use ham from the butchers rather than wafer thin ham. This bake would be a great way to use up leftover cooked ham. You can also make this macaroni cheese with bacon: roughly chop and fry in little oil until golden. Drain on kitchen paper then add to the sauce when the recipe says to add the ham.
- Cauliflower – this recipe works with leftover cooked cauliflower too. Stir it into the sauce with the cooked pasta and then top with panko and bake.
- Mustard – adds a background flavour and brings out the cheese flavour. You can’t taste the mustard! I make this mac n cheese with both dijon mustard and wholegrain mustard.
- Cheddar cheese – I often use tasty cheddar for the sauce, but you can use vintage cheddar for a stronger cheese flavour.
- Parmesan cheese – I find using parmesan in the panko topping makes it stay crispy, but you can use cheddar if you don’t mind the topping not being as crisp, or leave it out altogether.
- Panko breadcrumbs – these light and crispy breadcrumbs make the topping super cripsy when baked with olive oil, but you can use homemade breadcrumbs (see FAQ before for how to make them) instead.
How to make ham mac and cheese from scratch
- Cook the macaroni according to packet instructions: 8 minutes before it’s cooked, add the cauliflower florets.
- Make the sauce: melt the butter and add the flour. Stir well and cook the flour.
- Add the milk a little at a time (this helps prevent the sauce from becoming lumpy).
- Add thyme, mustard, spring onions, ham and cheese.
- Drain the pasta and cauliflower and mix into the sauce.
- Pour into a baking dish.
- Make the panko topping: mix panko with olive oil and parmesan then sprinkle over the pasta.
- Place in a preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown.
Make your own dried breadcrumbs: Place two slices of bread (crusts are great for this!) in the oven at 150˚C/ 300˚F for 10 minutes, or until dried and crispy, but without much colour. Cool, then whiz in the food processor until you have breadcrumbs the size you want.
I find cheddar cheese works best – it provides a creamy flavour, melts well, and is reasonably priced.
You want to cook the cauliflower until just tender. If you overcook it, it will still taste ok in the pasta bake, but the dish may be more watery which will cause the sauce to split. It is still edible though!
My recipe tips
- Stir the roux (the butter and flour mixture) and cook it for a couple of minutes before adding the milk. This will help cook the flour.
- Add the milk a little at a time and then whisk well before adding some more milk. This helps prevent a lumpy sauce.
- If you don’t want a baked macaroni cheese, you can make this on the stove top, and not include the breadcrumbs. (Making it this way means dinner can be on the table 30 minutes earlier.)
- Vegetarian mac n cheese: leave out the ham, and you are left with a delicious cauliflower mac and cheese!
- No breadcrumbs – sprinkle the mac and cheese with some grated cheese before placing it in the oven.
You can eat this pasta bake on its own, but here are some other ideas:
- a side of cooked green beans, peas or carrots
- a simple side salad such as this pear and walnut salad, or this pomegranate, parmesan and rocket (arugula) salad
- a slice of garlic bread (air fryer recipe)
Prepare the pasta bake up to 3 days ahead. Make it up to adding the breadcrumbs, cool completely then cover and put in the fridge for up to 3 days. Add the breadcrumbs at the last minutes just before cooking as they will go soggy otherwise, and you want them to be crispy! The chilled cauliflower mac n cheese will take slightly longer to heat through.
You can also make the sauce ahead, cool it thoroughly and then freeze it. Then defrost, heat over a low heat whisking well as it may separate but a quick whisk with a balloon whisk will bring it together. Then stir in cooked pasta, cauliflower and ham and bake.
Freezing the macaroni cheese: I wouldn’t recommend freezing this mac and cheese, as the cauliflower can become watery, and the panko breadcrumbs will become soggy.
Ideas for leftover cauliflower macaroni cheese:
- Reheat thoroughly in the oven or microwave – leftovers taste great! I love to add a little more grated cheddar over the top before serving.
- Macaroni cheese on toast: If you don’t have a large amount of mac n cheese leftover, heat for a couple of minutes over a low-medium in a small pan, pile on top of toast and top with a little grated cheese then pop under the grill until golden. A carb loaded cheese on toast, which my family love!
Why not try…
You may also like these other family friendly pasta recipes:
Ham and Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
- 800 g cauliflower (roughly 1 large cauliflower) cut into florets, the stalks finely chopped
- 300 g macaroni
- 40 g butter
- 40 g plain flour
- 700 ml milk
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme finely chopped, optional
- splash Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon Djion Mustard
- 2 spring onions finely sliced
- 150 g ham (3 slices) shredded
- 150 g cheddar cheese grated
- 40 g (⅔ c) panko breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 50 g parmesan cheese finely grated
- Preheat the oven to 180˚C fan/ 356˚F convection.
- Cook the macaroni in a large pan of boiling water according to instructions on the packet, less 1 minute.
- Add the cauliflower 8 minutes before macaroni is ready.
- Meanwhile make the sauce.
To make the cheese and ham sauce:
- In a medium saucepan melt the butter, then add the flour and mix well. Cook, stirring for a minute before slowly stirring in the milk, a little at a time, and cook over a gentle heat for 5 minutes.
- Add the thyme, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, spring onions, ham and then the cheese and season with black pepper.
- Drain the pasta and cauliflower and mix into the sauce.
- Pour into a 20cm x 26cm (7.5" x 10") baking dish.
- Mix the breadcrumbs with the olive oil and parmesan cheese and sprinkle over the pasta.
- Put in oven and bake for 30 minutes, until bubbling and the top is golden brown.