Wagon wheel pasta is really great. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, because up until last night, I hadn’t even fully understood myself. You see, when I make any form of pasta, wheels basically never pop into my mind as an option. I think of penne, fettucine, and orrechiette. Sure, wheels seem fun, but they never quite fall under my pasta-making radar.
About a week ago, while I was grocery shopping, I spotted a box of wagon wheels in the pasta aisle. I could almost see them rolling along in the box as a sudden impulse took over and I thought, “I must do something with wagon wheels.” This realization pestered me like a little voice in my head until, at last, a pastatunity* presented itself. I was dying to make mac and cheese without a recipe for the first time, and I needed the perfect pasta for the job.
Enter the wagon wheels.
I should’ve never doubted these circular little guys. I mean, just look at them; they’re adorable! Simply gazing upon a bowl of these cheesy wheels is enough to put a smile on your face. But if you really want to be spilling over with joy, then you’ve got to eat them too.
I hate saying things like, “This is the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had,” because then you’re just like “yeah, whatever.” Nevertheless, I feel you have a right to know that this is my favorite mac and cheese I’ve tried. I’ve tried countless recipes, and I’ve had some delicious ones no doubt, but I could never quite get it perfect. Turns out, all I had to do was ditch the recipes and cook from my own mind.
The whimsical wheels really are a large contributor to the sheer amazingness that is this mac and cheese. Yes, they’re cute, and yes, they’re fun. But that’s merely aesthetics. As it turns out, their wheel shape is perfect for picking up sauce and locking it inside its ridges. I did not eat a single dry noodle. Each wheel burst with cheese down to the very last bite. All this time, I had no idea that wagon wheel pasta was not just for cuteness and kid appeal; it is scientifically engineered to act as cradle for the optimal amount of sauce as well. That’s one well-rounded pasta.
Now, even if you forgo the wheels for a more traditional pasta, you are going to be in cheesy mac heaven. This pasta sauce is so creamy, luscious, and ridiculously flavorful. Three kinds of cheeses (technically four), Muenster, Sharp Cheddar, and a Pecorino-Romano/Parmesan combo, create a sublime blend of melted euphoria. Never was there a more beautiful trio of flavors for constructing a cheese sauce than this.
But that’s not all. I’ve got two secret ingredients that take this sauce over the top: shallots & hot sauce. Can you say “flavor explosion“? Plus, fresh spinach provides heartiness, healthiness, and, of course, more flavor. No need to feel shame over indulging in this heavenly mac and cheese; you’re getting a nutritious dose of greens!
The crowning jewel to this bubbling dish of deliciousness is a golden brown, crunchy breadcrumb topping. Yes, this is heaven.
I implore you to make this mac and cheese. The sauce’s flavor is sublime, its texture is ideal, and little wagons are ready to deliver all that cheesy goodness straight to your mouth. If you’re half as hungry as I am now, then grab a fork and get ready to dive into this rich, creamy, and flavorful dish.
A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:
- If you ever have a problem with your cheese sauce getting too thick or thin, no matter what recipe you use, the solution is simple. More cheese = thicker sauce; more milk = thinner sauce.
- You can replace the shallot with regular onion if you wish, but the shallot really packs a unique punch.
- Whole wheat/whole grain wagon wheels are hard to come by, but if you can find them, then go for it. The health benefits provided by WW & WG pastas are plentiful. Don’t pass it up!
- Trade spinach for kale if you so desire.
- Cook your pasta until al dente (which means it still has a bit of bite). I can’t stress that enough! Nobody likes soggy, saggy pasta.
- Your kids will love the fun shape of these wheels, but let’s be honest, so will you!
Three-Cheese Wagon Wheels with Spinach
By The Smart Cookie Cook
- 1 lb. wagon wheel pasta (preferably whole grain or whole wheat)
- 1 shallot, finely chopped or grated
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tbsp. flour
- 3 cups milk
- 1 tsp. hot sauce
- Salt, to taste
- 1 ½ cups shredded Muenster cheese
- 1 ½ cups shredded Sharp Cheddar cheese
- ¾ cup grated Pecorino Romano & Parmesan mix (or just one of the two)
- 3-4 cups fresh spinach, roughly chopped
- ¾ cup panko bread crumbs
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
- In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until al dente. Drain and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, melt 3 tbsp. butter. Add shallots and cook until translucent and fragrant; about 2 minutes.
- Whisk in flour. Continue whisking constantly for 2-3 minutes (to cook out the “flour-y” taste). Whisk in milk. Cover and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
- Whisk in the hot sauce, salt to taste, and ¾ of the cheeses, reserving the rest of the cheese for topping. Whisk until sauce is smooth and cheese is melted. Test taste to decide if you want more cheese, hot sauce, or salt and add more accordingly (if sauce is too runny, adding cheese will fix this easily). Add spinach and stir to combine.
- Add pasta to sauce and stir until well-coated. Pour into baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining cheeses.
- Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and stir in the panko. Sprinkle over pasta. Bake covered for ten minutes then uncover and bake for an additional 5 minutes until topping is golden brown and sauce is bubbling.
*pastatunity – (n) An opportunity to make pasta.