Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Mac and Cheese–Lightened Up

We just returned home after being out of town for several days.  Even though we’re low on groceries, and a little tired out from a late-night flight, I still wanted to eat something home-made for supper.  If you ask me, a delicious bowl of creamy Macaroni and Cheese is the best way to welcome yourself home.  A while back, I read a recipe for Spicy Macaroni and Cheese on the Pioneer Woman, a popular blog by Ree Drummond, a real life Ranch-Mom and author of hearty homespun recipes from the Oklahoma frontier.  When I read the original recipe I thought it looked yummy, but I also thought the fat content was a little over the top for a person who hasn’t been out wrassling cattle all afternoon.  Last night, I made a skillet of Spicy Mac with a few modifications that lightened up an ingredient list that is a little too rich for my blood and within the constraints of a nearly-empty refrigerator

My recipe takes most cues from the Pioneer Woman version.  I started assembling my “cast of characters” to make sure I had enough of the main ingredients to make the recipe.  If you are up for using 2 Tablespoons of Butter and a Cup of Heavy Cream in your spicy Mac and Cheese, you can follow this link back to Pioneer Woman to follow the original recipe.  I’m sure it would be over-the-top delicious.  I reduced the butter, used fat-free half and half, had to substitute jalapenos from a jar for fresh, and sharp cheddar for pepper jack cheese because that was all there was in the fridge.  I added orange bell pepper to the ingredient list because I had one.  I love making my meals into a colorful, antioxidant-rich rainbow.  I am not going to pull any punches, my Spicy Mac wasn’t exactly “light,” but the slight adjustments brought the calorie-count down into a normal range for a serving of a satisfying size.  I didn’t leave anything out that added flavor.  


  • 4 cups cooked elbow macaroni (about 2 cups dry) or another small pasta such as cavatappi
  • ½ tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ finely diced red onion
  • ½ red bell pepper – diced
  • ½ orange bell pepper – diced
  • 2 tablespoons jalapenos from a jar – finely diced
  • 1 – 4 ounce can chopped green chilies
  • 1 heaping cup of frozen corn
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup fat free half and half – I use fat free half and half because it was the only dairy we had in the fridge. Milk with a fat content of your preference, half & half or the real deal heavy cream will all work wonderfully. 
  • 1 heaping cup of grated sharp cheddar, pepper jack or Monterrey Jack cheese
  • ¼ teaspoon to 2 Tablespoons butter – optional                                                          
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

The entire dish took about 30 minutes, start to finish.  I began by filling a sauce pan of water with a dash of salt to boil for the pasta, and heating a skillet with a small glug of olive oil over medium heat.  While those warmed up, I chopped the red onion, red and orange peppers into small chunks of a similar size.  I chopped a few forkfuls of jalapenos from the jar.  The next time I make this, I will of course try to have a fresh jalapeno, but if I don’t, I will probably use more of the jarred jalapenos.  The jalapeno adds most of the heat, and quantities can be adjusted up or down depending on your spice tolerance.  I sautéed the onion and garlic a few minutes before adding the bell pepper.  At the same time, I started boiling the noodles to a little less than “done” so they could cook a little more in the sauce to become al dente.  When the onions, bell peppers, garlic and jalapenos were bright and heading toward tender-crisp, I added a heaped cup of frozen corn.  When the veggies were cooking, but still had crunch, I added a can of diced green chilis.  Diced green chilies have become a pantry staple in our house.  They are mild and they add a smoky complexity to Southwest and Mexican soups and stews without too much heat.  When the veggies were nearly done, I turned off the heat in the skillet, and drained the pasta.  The sauce is extremely simple, which is a plus.  This is the perfect macaroni and cheese to make when you don’t have the time, or the desire to monkey around making a roux.  I simply added the fat free half and half and cheese to the skillet and stirred it gently into the vegetables. A skillet retains heat for a long time, so it was warm enough to warm the “cream” and melt the cheese.  Finally, I added the pasta to the skillet.  I stirred gently to combine the pasta, veggies and sauce in the skillet.  Per Ree’s advice, I added a little extra cheese to thicken the sauce a bit.  Instead of the two pats of butter from the original recipe, I stirred in just the tiniest bit of butter.  You could totally leave the butter out and you probably wouldn’t miss it, even though the silkiness it adds to the sauce is quite nice.

Channeling Pioneer Woman, I served the Spicy Mac right from the skillet, frontier style.    We enjoyed the rainbow of veggies, the warming spiciness and of course, the cheesy, comforting macaroni noodles.  Ah, we’re home. When I make this again, I would probably up the spice a notch or two… something red, a little Smoked Paprika, Cayenne Pepper, Chili Powder or Chili Flakes, perhaps?  

The Spicy Mac also passed the lunch test.  We both enjoyed a second serving with a small salad for lunch the next day.  Ree Drummond suggests this as a dish to be served alongside a juicy steak.  I might just do that the next time I need a meatless dish when my pardner is grilling steak.  We both thought this Mac & Cheese stood well all alone.  I recommend serving it alone with salt and pepper on the table and a cold beer, or a tall glass of milk.

*I like to welcome myself home with Mac & Cheese, I also like to eat Mac & Cheese when I’m dining alone, when we have something to celebrate, on a rainy day, and for no reason at all.  If you’ve been here before you will note that Mac & Cheese in all forms is my favorite.

4 thoughts on “Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Mac and Cheese–Lightened Up

  1. Mmmmmm……I’ve had a couple glasses o’ wine tonight and just want to eat that right up!!!! But maybe tomorrow 😉 Looks delicious!

  2. Meg,
    Your mac and cheese looks so colorful and appetizing. I am going to try this version very soon. It truly looked like a warm welcome home dish and had springy color too.

  3. Pardon me, I don’t mean to intrude, but Ree Drummond isn’t the author of “hearty homespun recipes from the Oklahoma frontier.” The recipes she posts are frequently lifted from church and community cookbooks without attribution. Oftentimes, she’ll simply lift a recipe from a website, add some salt here, some pepper there and voila she has a brand spanking new recipe. Her new cookbook is full of retro recipes for hamburgers, sloppy joes, grilled cheese and brownies, food found in any reliable Betty Crocker book. Other recipes were inspired by chain restaurant menus. Her food is not healthy and if eaten on a regular basis, could result in a raging case of Type II diabetes.

    Ms. Drummond is a bored, rich housewife who has ridden her husband’s bank account to fame and fortune. She rarely writes her blog posts and instead has delegated that and many other tasks to ghost writers. She has an entire cadre of Madison Avenue publicists promoting her “pit stop, city girl meets rugged cowboy, hiney tingles, say wha, the end” schtick. It’s one of the biggest internet hoaxes in recent memory. For more information on this charade, check out these links:

    • Hi Marilyn,

      That is an interesting perspective. I am not a dedicated follower of the Pioneer Woman. Like many recipes I find around the web, I just happened upon the recipe that I referenced in my post and thought it looked good, and like something I’d like to try to modify according to my taste. I read recipes by many celebrity chefs, and anonymous bloggers, and cook based on them all the time. You will also see if you read my post that her version was “too rich for my blood,” but all the same, I was inspired by it, and made it into a good meal. I have no opinion as to her authenticity as a pioneer woman. Frankly, I don’t care about that at all, and I am not offended in the least by how successful she is, or the true origin of her wealth. I encourage people to research this according to their own level of interest in the matter, and verify their conclusions independently from reliable sources. I don’t deal in trash talk, but I am not going to delete this comment, because I hope that you are commenting in order to add to a meaningful dialogue about cooking and eating, which I can respect despite my disinterest in publishing negativity.



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