This Smoky Harissa Mac and Cheese is loaded with a ton of flavor, decadently rich and creamy, and incredibly cozy and comforting! Chicken, roasted brussels sprouts, and pasta get tossed in a robust, bold flavored, smoky, spicy, and sweet harissa infused cheese sauce! Perfect for date night in, a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner, or treating yourself on any night!
1/4 TSP Smoked Paprika (I used hot, but you can use sweet smoked paprika instead if you prefer)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan) Cheese
For the Smoky Harissa Mac and Cheese:
8 ounces uncooked short-cut pasta (I used Galletti n°44, but any shape will work)
2 TBLS Unsalted Butter
1/2 Yellow Onion – finely minced
6 Garlic cloves – finely minced
2 TBLS All-Purpose Flour
3 cups Whole Milk
4 TBLS Harissa Paste, more or less to taste (see notes)*
2 TBLS Tomato Paste
1 TSP Kosher Salt, to taste
1.5 TSP freshly cracked Black Pepper
1/2 TSP ground/dry Mustard (also known as mustard powder, I used Coleman’s English Mustard Powder)
1 TSP ground Cayenne, to taste
1.5 TSP Smoked Paprika (Hot)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan) Cheese
1 cup Smoked Cheddar Cheese (I used Applewood Smoked Cheddar)
5–6 TBLS Reserved Pasta Water (or as needed to thin the sauce)
For Garnish (optional): 1 TBLS chopped fresh Chives
For the Baked Chicken Breasts:
Preheat oven to 175°C/350°F. Line a baking tray with a sheet of aluminum foil and brush lightly with olive oil (or any other cooking oil you prefer).
In a large bowl, add the kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper, paprika, and garlic powder. Mix with a spoon or use a small whisk to combine the spices and seasonings until fully integrated.
Brush olive oil on the chicken breasts then dip them into the bowl and rub with the seasonings and spices until they are fully coated. (The oil helps to keep the chicken juicy during baking and allows the seasonings to better stick to the chicken breasts.)
Place the chicken breasts (plump side up) on the foil lined baking tray and bake for 20-22 minutes, turning once using tongs halfway through.
Remove the baking tray from the oven and let the chicken rest for 10-12 minutes to lock in all the juices. Transfer the chicken breasts to a chopping board, making sure to let any extra liquid/juices drip onto the foil before placing them on the board. Cut into thin slices with a sharp knife and set aside. (See notes for making ahead.)*
For the Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F. Line a baking tray with a sheet of aluminum foil.
Clean and remove any yellow outer leaves from the brussels sprouts. Slice each sprout in half, then rinse thoroughly and pat-dry with paper towels.
Add the brussels sprouts to a mixing bowl and pour the olive oil on top of the sprouts. Gently toss to coat in the oil. Then season with kosher salt to taste, and toss again.
Spread on the foil lined baking tray and bake for 20-23 minutes, opening the oven halfway through to toss and turn the sprouts for even browning.
Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the pan to a cooling rack. (See notes for making ahead.)*
For the Breadcrumbs Topping:
Heat the unsalted butter in a skillet or nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Once melted, add the breadcrumbs and garlic. Turn down the heat to low and stir until they are coated in the butter – 20 seconds. Add the kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and smoked paprika. Stir to combine until the breadcrumbs have lightly browned. Switch of the heat and transfer to a clean bowl. Mix in the freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and set aside.
For the Smoky Harissa Chicken Mac and Cheese:
Prep: Preheat oven to 175°C/350°F. Chop the garlic, onion, chives (if using for garnish) as indicated in the instructions. Combine all the seasonings and spices for the pasta in a small bowl. Cover and set aside. Cook the pasta al–dente according to package directions in a deep large sauté pan of boiling salted water. Reserve 1 cup of water once the pasta is cooked, then drain and set aside. (I like to run water over my pasta to prevent them from sticking and cooking further.) Rinse out the pan and set it back on the stove. Measure out the milk in a measuring cup, and grate the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and smoked cheddar. Set everything aside.
Heat the unsalted butter in the pan over medium-high heat. Once melted and frothing, add the onion and garlic and sauté for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
Next, whisk in the all-purpose flour and cook for a minute to get rid of the floury taste. Then lower the heat to medium-low and gradually pour in the milk while continuing to whisk.
Add the harissa paste, tomato paste, and all of the spices and seasonings in the bowl you made earlier. Stir until evenly combined.
Mix in the freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and smoked cheddar, stir until fully melted. The sauce will start to thicken, so add 5-6 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water (or as needed to thin out the sauce).
Add the cooked pasta, chicken, and roasted brussels sprouts and toss to combine with the sauce. Cook for 2-4 minutes while stirring occasionally, then switch off the heat.
Transfer to a 9×13 baking dish and spread evenly. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs topping evenly on top.
Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the topping is golden brown. Remove the dish from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool and set for 10-15 minutes.
To Serve: Garnish with chopped fresh chives (if desired) and serve!
A note on Harissa Pastes: I used Al’fez brand harissa paste, which has a sweeter taste than most other harissa pastes since it has tomato puree and tomato powder incorporated in it. If using Le Phare du Cap Bon or DEA brand (I’ve tried both, and they are excellent!), you may need to add an additional tablespoon of tomato paste and decrease the smoked paprika to 1 teaspoon for the mac and cheese. I use Le Phare Cap Du Bon harissa or DEA harissa when they are available to me. They are both smokier and spicier than Al’fez harissa paste, and more authentic.
Make ahead: The chicken can be cooked 1-3 days in advance. If making the chicken ahead, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. The brussels sprouts can also be roasted a day in advance. If making them ahead, transfer them to a big enough airtight container so as to not overcrowd them once they are cool. Store in the refrigerator overnight. Take the chicken and brussels sprouts out of the fridge when you’re ready to cook the mac and cheese.
Use a different protein: In place of the chicken, you can use pan-fried shrimp, crispy bacon, or cooked pork, beef, or turkey sausage. Just slice them up into dimes, and add them to the mac and cheese instead.
Use rotisserie chicken: To save time, you can buy a rotisserie chicken and shred the meat to use in this mac and cheese instead.
Spice it up or tone down the heat: Add more ground cayenne and harissa paste, and be sure to use a smoked paprika that’s hot, not sweet. I’m a huge fan of La Chinata’s Hot Smoked Paprika. It’s loaded with so much flavor, and can take any dish up to a whole other level of tastiness! Likewise, if you’re not big on heat, use less ground cayenne (or omit entirely) and harissa paste, and use a sweet smoked paprika.
To make it gluten-free: Use gluten-free all-purpose flour and pasta for the mac and cheese. Also, make sure that the tomato paste and cheeses you are using are GF certified. Most tomato pastes and cheeses are naturally gluten-free, but it’s best to double check the ingredients list to be sure.
To make it vegetarian: Simply omit the chicken! You’re welcome to add more roasted veggies if you like in place of the meat. Some ideas include roasted bell peppers, carrots, broccoli florets, and zucchini.
To make it vegan: Same as for making it vegetarian, but also be sure to use a dairy-free milk, vegan butter, and vegan cheeses.