Creamy Cavatappi pasta is a weeknight win. With a quick and easy cream and Parmesan sauce that feels indulgent, this simple recipe is easy to customize to suit your tastes.
My go-to weeknight meal is pasta. I always keep a few different shapes on hand along with cans of tomatoes, a head or two of garlic, and a hunk of Parm. In case of a dinner emergency, I can whip out a few items and have dinner ready in no time.
This is one of my favorite recipes in my pasta tool belt. The ingredient list is short, it’s ready from start to finish in just over 20 minutes, and it’s wonderfully creamy and delicious. A little garlic and fresh lemon add some extra flavor while Parmesan does the heavy lifting. It’s a grown-up, simpler take on mac and cheese that will still satisfy kids.
I include peas in creamy Cavatappi since I almost always have a bag of frozen peas on hand and they add nice color, texture, and flavor. You can easily leave them out or swap for a favorite green veggie.
What Is Cavatappi?
I like to think of cavatappi pasta as leveled-up elbow macaroni. It’s a hollow pasta formed into a twisted spiral shape using an extruder die. With more twists and turns than elbow macaroni, there are more chances for al dente texture and more opportunities for capturing sauce. It’s a good choice for creamy sauces, pesto, and tomato sauce pasta bakes as well as pasta salads.
You’ll find dried cavatappi in the pasta section of your grocery store. It can also be found at some Italian specialty markets and online.
How to Cook Cavatappi
Like most pasta, Cavatappi pasta is best cooked in a large pot of boiling, well-salted water. Stir the pasta after adding it to the water to ensure the spirals don’t stick to the pot or each other. Boil cavtappi according to the package directions, often 6 to 8 minutes for al dente, before draining.
How to Serve Creamy Cavatappi
This quick and easy stovetop pasta recipe is ready in just over 20 minutes, making it perfect for weeknights. It requires few ingredients and is easy to customize. Plus, it’s crowd-pleasing—who can resist a creamy pasta?
I often serve creamy cavatappi with a tossed green salad and we’re ready to eat in under 30 minutes. Win! Other winning accompaniments include roasted broccoli or broccolini, roasted asparagus, grilled chicken breasts, sautéed shrimp, and more.
Tips for the Creamiest, Dreamiest Pasta
While this recipe is simple as can be, here are a few tips for assuring success:
- Salt the pasta water well and don’t use too much water. You want enough to cover the pasta by an inch or two, but using too much water means your pasta water will be bland and won’t bind the sauce as well.
- Don’t forget to save some pasta water before draining the pasta! It helps to simultaneously thin the sauce and make it creamier.
- Stir the simmering cream often to keep it from scorching and keep it a low simmer, not a rolling boil.
- Add the Parmesan a little at a time, letting each handful melt before adding more.
- Just keep stirring. After adding the pasta water, keep tossing the sauced pasta over medium heat. The sauce will begin to coat the pasta, which is what you want. Add more pasta water as needed—while it does thin the sauce a bit at first, it also helps it to coat the pasta.
The Best Substitutes for Cavatappi
Cavatappi sometimes gets mistaken for macaroni. Cavatappi is actually a type of macaroni—a hollow, tubular pasta—but the macaroni most Americans think of is elbow macaroni. Cavatappi tends to be a bit bigger and has more twists and turns than elbow macaroni.
That being said, macaroni makes a fine substitute for cavatappi in this dish. Other good options include penne, fusilli, or any tubular pasta. Bonus points if it has ridges, since they cling better to a creamy sauce.
Put Your Spin On It
This basic recipe is tasty all on its own, but it’s also easy to add, swap, and generally tweak the recipe to suit your needs. Try these easy variations:
- Spicy: Kick the flavor up a notch by adding red pepper flakes to taste along with the salt and pepper.
- Veggie swaps: Add more green veg or swap out the peas. Add 1 of bunch fresh, washed and dried spinach or 1 1/2 cups chopped frozen broccoli to the colander in place of (or in addition to) the peas.
- Make it meaty: Stir in 1 to 2 sliced, cooked chicken breasts, 1/3 pound crumbled, cooked sausage, or 2 to 3 cooked and crumbled slices of bacon just before serving.
- Tomatoes: Add a pop of color and brightness by incorporating 1 heaping cup of halved cherry tomatoes or 1/4 to 1/3 cup of chopped sun-dried tomatoes just before serving.
- Fresh herbs: Sprinkle the finished pasta with 1 to 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley or torn basil.
- Lemony: Finely zest a lemon and add it along with the cheese for an aromatic, zesty note.
Creamy Cavatappi Pasta is a weeknight win. With a quick and easy cream and Parmesan sauce that feels indulgent, this simple recipe is easy to customize to suit your tastes.
- 8 ounces (1/2 pound) Cavatappi pasta
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pasta water
- 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup (1.3 ounces) finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 cup frozen peas, optional
- 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water
Cook the pasta:
Put a large pot of water on to boil over high heat. Season generously with salt.
Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and stir. Cook until just short of al dente, according to the package directions.
Make the sauce while the pasta cooks. Don’t forget to save some pasta water before draining the cavatappi!
Meanwhile, make the sauce:
While the pasta cooks, add the butter to a large skillet over medium heat. Once melted, add the garlic and cook just until fragrant but not browned, about 30 seconds.
Slowly add the cream while stirring and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, reducing the heat if needed to maintain a simmer. Cook, while stirring, until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes.
Add the Parmesan a small handful at a time, sprinkling it over top and stirring each time until melted. Add the lemon juice and stir. Turn the heat as low as it’ll go until the pasta is ready, stirring occasionally.
Drain the pasta and thaw the peas:
Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Add the frozen peas to a colander.
Drain the pasta over the frozen peas (the hot pasta will help defrost the peas).
Toss the pasta and serve:
If your skillet is big enough, add the pasta and peas to the sauce. Otherwise, add the pasta and peas back to the pasta pot and pour the sauce over the top.
Add 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water and turn the heat to medium. Toss constantly until you have a creamy sauce that coats the noodles, 3 to 5 minutes. If the sauce seems too thick, add more pasta water a small splash at a time, tossing in between.
You’ll want the sauce slightly looser than you think since it will thicken quickly as it cools.
Taste, adding salt and/or pepper if needed. Top with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
Creamy cavatappi is best eaten hot and freshly made, but you can refrigerate it in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Reheat gently in the microwave or on the stovetop, adding a little water or cream to loosen the sauce.
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Double this recipe to make a whole pound of pasta, which will feed 4 to 6 people.
The amount of salt is a guideline—adjust it based on your taste and how salty your pasta water is.
- Prep Time: 7 mins
- Cook Time: 15 mins
- Category: Main Course, Side Dish
- Cuisine: American
- Serving Size: 2 to 3 servings
- Calories: 235 kcal
- Sugar: 1g
- Sodium: 437mg
- Fat: 11g
- Saturated Fat: 6g
- Carbohydrates: 26g
- Fiber: 2g
- Protein: 8g
- Cholesterol: 29mg
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