Sometimes you just need a really creamy and rich dish to go along with all of that barbecue. That’s where this Mac and Cheese with Diced Ham and Peas joins the party, a tribute to my Midwest upbringing. Simple, fresh, and very flavorful.
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Tradition Meets Mac and Cheese
Creamy mac and cheese are really hard to beat, especially when it’s homemade. Every single time I go to a barbecue restaurant it has to be one of the sides that I order. Adding in the salty bits of ham paired with peas and the special blend of cheeses just really elevates what’s typically a simple dish and is something a little bit more.
I’m inspired by the classic ham and pea salad, a side dish that I grew up with as a kid. Traditionally, you’d have a creamy combination of peas, ham, some herbs, and chunks of cheddar cheese stirred in. It’s a really bright, fresh dish, and I just wanted to translate something simple like that into a side for BBQ. I guess you could use that as a side for BBQ, but I can’t help myself with a big serving of mac and cheese.
Ingredients Matter, Even the Ham
The key is starting with really good ingredients. Obviously, you have your elbow macaroni, but the stars going to be the diced ham and fresh peas. Not everybody has access to fresh peas, and this recipe would absolutely work with frozen peas.
Choosing the right balance with a combination of cheeses is critical. This mac and cheese with ham is not a dish that I would recommend for smoking, as it’s meant to stay incredibly creamy and fresh. The base starts with a roux, a combination of flour and butter cooked down to thicken the sauce. From there we add whole milk, cream cheese, pepper jack, smoked gouda, and sharp cheddar. It sounds like a lot, but the combination of mild, tangy, and sharp cheeses really builds a wonderful flavor to carry the salty ham and fresh peas.
Simple Process for Creamy Cheese
I might be cooking this on the grill as you can see in the photos, but this mac and cheese with ham is easily something that you can pull off on the stove. I like to boil the pasta until al dente, alongside the sauce while it’s cooking. The biggest key in making the sauce is making sure that it doesn’t boil. You want to cook the roux and the milk until it’s starting to simmer, keeping it below about 170°F which will allow the cheese sauce to stay at a proper temperature without causing it to break. The last thing that you want is a gritty cheese sauce that comes together. Cream cheese tends to do that, so it’s important to watch out for the temperature.
Once the roux and the milk are simmering you can slowly add in the room-temperature cream cheese (very important), and the other cheeses, whisking to incorporate them into the perfect blend. It’s not necessary to sear the ham, but if you want to add an extra layer of flavor you can definitely do so before you start building the cheese sauce. Make sure that the peas are defrosted before you add them in, if you are using frozen peas.
This dish is very flexible, allowing you to add any types of spice combinations and herbs that you’d like. I like to stick with fresh flavors, such as fresh ground black pepper, parsley, dill, or chile flakes.
Love mac and cheese? Then you’ve got to consider trying this recipe for Smoked Beer Mac and Cheese, a fun side dish with a touch of smoke, and beer of course.Print
- 1 pound elbow macaroni
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 1/4 cups whole milk, slightly warmed
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temp
- 2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese
- 1 cup shredded smoked Gouda cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 8 ounces diced ham
- 1 1/2 cups peas (fresh or frozen)
- Kosher salt to taste
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles to the water and cook until al dente. Timing may vary based on the pasta itself. Drain the pasta in a strainer to remove excess water when ready.
- While the noodles are cooking, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the flour to the butter and whisk to form a smooth roux. Continue to cook and whisk for about 2-3 minutes until the roux is a light-brown color. Slowly pour in the warmed milk while whisking to form a smooth sauce. Make sure the sauce does not boil, it needs to stay at a low simmer. You’ll notice the sauce thickening after about 3-4 minutes.
- Lower your temperature and start to add in the cream cheese, a little at a time, gently whisking until it’s completely melted before adding more. Do the same for the rest of the cheeses and the ground mustard, whisking and adding in a portion at a time until the sauce is melted and smooth.
- Add in the diced ham and peas. Mix until warmed through, and remove the pan from the heat.
- Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and gently stir to coat the macaroni. If the cheese sauce is too thick, add a splash of milk to the skillet and mix it in.