Wonderpots involve cooking pasta in its own sauce. Obviously, this is NOT the traditional way to cook pasta, which involves cooking in copious amounts of boiling water, draining it, and adding it to a separately prepared sauce. Four benefits of the wonderpot method make it superior than the traditional method for this recipe. First, as the name indicates, it only uses one pot. Second, and more importantly, since you are not draining away the starchy cooking liquid from the pasta, the liquid reduces and thickens, enhancing creamy pasta dishes by making them extra creamy and eliminating the need to make a separate roux. Third, because the pasta cooks in the sauce, flavor is infused throughout the pasta, not just the sauce. Fourth, for a hands off, fast meal, it can be modified to cook in an Instant Pot.
Thanks to its wonderpot nature, this is a one-pot, 5 ingredient mac and cheese made entirely on the stovetop. The cream cheese is the real heavy lifter in this dish. It adds an incredible creamy smoothness, and, in combination with the starchy cooking liquid, thickens and emulsifies the cheese sauce. For this reason, the sauce is basically foolproof. It will not break or get grainy. It will be the most luxuriously smooth mac and cheese sauce you've ever tasted. Honestly, you could leave out the jalapeno and have the best traditional mac and cheese ever.
I also make a passing attempt to lighten this dish up a bit by using reduced fat dairy, and it tastes just as good. Do NOT use fat-free dairy, however, because it will not melt properly. (And who are we trying to fool anyway, you can only make a good mac and cheese so healthy.)
Jalapeno Popper Mac and Cheese Wonderpot
1 lb pasta (I like penne)
5 cups total milk and water (I don't keep cow's milk on hand, so I use 12 oz canned evaporated 2% milk from my pantry plus 3.5 cups water. 3 cups milk and 2 cups water would be equivalent.)
3-6 jalapenos, diced (I like very spicy food, so I use 6, and I do not remove the seeds. If you are more of a spice lightweight, use less and remove the seeds and pith.)
8 oz cream cheese (I use reduced fat)
1/2 t salt
black pepper to taste
1/2 t garlic powder, optional (but in my world, garlic is never optional)
1/2 cup crumbled bacon, optional
12 oz shredded cheddar jack cheese (I use reduced fat. I tried making a mac and cheese like this using only cheddar, and it didn't turn out as well. I think at least equal amounts of jack help make the sauce creamy.)
Place pasta, water and milk into a large saucepan, cover, and bring to a low simmer, stirring frequently.
Once pasta begins to soften, but is not yet al dente, (after about 8 minutes), stir in jalapenos, cream cheese, seasonings, and bacon, if using. Separate the cream cheese into blobs with a spoon. It will not immediately dissolve, and that is ok. Cover and return to a bare simmer and stir again in a few minutes. At that point, the cream cheese will stir in easily.
When pasta is al dente, after about 15 minutes total cook time, remove from heat and stir in cheddar jack cheese a few handfuls at a time. Pasta should be fairly saucy at this point because it will continue to absorb sauce as it cools. If it is too dry and thick, add a bit more water or milk. If it is too thin, let stand, uncovered, for a few minutes to thicken.
Instant Pot version:
In Instant Pot, stir together pasta, water, and milk, and set to 3 minutes on manual high pressure. Use quick release and stir in remaining ingredients. Pasta should be fairly saucy at this point. If it is too dry and thick, add a bit more water or milk. If it is too thin, let stand, uncovered, for a few minutes to thicken.
Reheats and even freezes well. Just add a little water or milk and reheat gently.