WAY BACK IN 2008 Today we kick off the 2008 collection of Thanksgiving vegetable recipes (update: please see the latest collection, Favorite Recipes for Thanksgiving's Favorite Vegetables) with a recipe for macaroni and cheese that'll have your family asking, "Who made the mac 'n' cheese?" Oh boy oh boy, this is a mac 'n' cheese that's completely familiar and yet also a surprise, thanks to the secret ingredient, roasted butternut squash.
If you're like me, and then a dozen Slow Food St. Louis taste testers, and then my dad, you'll wonder, 'Why didn't we combine these before?' The combination is deeper, richer, earthier and yet still completely mac 'n' cheese – it just works! Here's why.
The squash has the same beautiful color as the cheddar cheese - so the dish doesn't "look" weird.
The roasted squash is sweet and soft, but still, adds just a bit of texture contrast to the macaroni.
I made two versions, one with more noodles (so more like a traditional mac 'n' cheese recipe), the other with more squash (so more like a squashy casserole with cheesy macaroni mixed in). They were both delicious – if you like this concept, move the direction that appeals. To my taste, the optimal proportion uses half of a two-pound+ squash and 8 ounces of macaroni. (Does one's sweet spot change? My latest favorite proportion is all of a two-pound butternut squash and 12 ounces of macaroni! This is a most-forgiving recipe, change up the proportions to suite your own taste!)
You can easily substitute your family's favorite macaroni and cheese recipe, just add roasted squash when you're assembling. Or use my recipe, below – I do think the nutmeg and white pepper are perfect.
CONTROVERSY? ARE WE KIDDING?
Who knew butternut squash could be so controversial? I promise, this recipe was cooked, twice, long before butternut squash in macaroni and cheese became the subject of tabloids and talks-too-much-guy Jerry Seinfeld and and the talks-alot-too talk-gal Oprah. Jimminy.
2011 & 2015 UPDATES Once again, this recipe surprised me at how good it is. We took it to a winter potluck in 2011, nary a noodle remained. In 2015, I made it for a family fall gathering: gone in a flash!
"Your butternut mac 'n' cheese was a-m-a-z-i-n-g. The best thing ever--honest to goodness." ~ Daniel
"This is absolutely amazing. ... Will definitely be making again!" ~ Amy
"This is a hit every time I make it, and it is easily adapted to bake in a crockpot for potlucks." ~ Meredith
"So good!" ~ Aly
"BEST.DISH.EVER." ~ Sue
"I just put this in the oven, and stole a little taste before hand. WOW!" ~ Jessica
"I do not like veggies but I could eat this every day." ~ Teri
BUTTERNUT MAC 'N' CHEESE
Time to table: 2-1/2 hours
Makes about 4 cups, easy to double or triple
For a "less squash-y" and more "mac 'n' cheese-y" version, use half the roasted squash in this dish, reserving the other half for something else.
1 two-pound butternut squash
For a "more mac 'n' cheese-y" version, use up to 16 ounces of macaroni.
4 ounces (about 1 cup) elbow macaroni (or my new favorite, rotini, the corkscrews)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small onion, chopped small
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup whole milk
16 ounces cheddar cheese or any good melting cheese (if in a brick, sliced or cubed, a blend of cheeses also works well, including some portion of cream cheese)
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup panko
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
Generous black pepper
SQUASH Preheat oven to 400F/200C. Cut squash in half, lengthwise and rub cut side with olive oil. Place cut-side down on a baking sheet and roast for 60 - 75 minutes or until completely cooked and soft. (Even easier? How to Roast a Whole Butternut Squash, You Know, Whole.) Scoop out flesh while still warm and break apart with a spoon. Timing-wise, finish the squash roughly the same time the pasta and the sauce is cooked so that it's still warm.
MACARONI Cook macaroni in salted water. Let drain well. Timing-wise, finish the pasta and the sauce about the same time.
CHEESE SAUCE In a saucepan, melt the butter on MEDIUM heat til shimmery. Stir in the onion as it's prepped, then the nutmeg and white pepper, cook til onions soften. Stir in the flour and mix well. A tablespoon at a time, add the milk, incorporating each tablespoon well before adding another. (If you add it all at once, or without working in each time, there's risk of ending up with a lumpy sauce.) Stirring often, let the sauce come almost to the boiling point, it will thicken slightly. Add the cheese and let melt, adjusting temperature so that the sauce won't boil. (It's not a disaster if it does, since it's going into the casserole, but it'll look curdled.)
COMBINE In a large bowl, break the squash apart, mashing it really, with a wooden spoon. Stir in the hot, drained pasta and combine well, distributing the squash throughout. Stir in the sauce and combine well. Transfer to a greased baking dish.
TOPPING In a small skillet, melt butter on low heat, add panko and pumpkin seeds and gently cook until golden, seasoning with black pepper. Watch carefully, these burn easily! Scatter over top of Mac 'n' Cheese.
BAKE Bake at 350F/180C for 30 - 60 minutes until hot and bubbly throughout. (Sorry, it's hard to be more specific when the volume of ingredients can vary so widely.) When covered with foil, holds its temperature for a good 30 minutes.
MAKE AHEAD TIPS
ONE or TWO DAYS BEFORE Roast the squash, cook the pasta, make the cheese sauce and make the topping. But refrigerate separately, otherwise the pasta will soak up all the cheese sauce and the end product will turn out dense and gooey, not in a good way.
THANKSGIVING DAY Return the ingredients to room temperature. Stir together the squash and cheese sauce (you might need to warm them, so they'll distribute evenly), then stir this into the pasta. Transfer to a well-greased baking dish. Bake at 350F for 45 - 60 minutes until hot and bubbly throughout.
ALANNA'S TIPS & KITCHEN NOTES
BUTTERNUT SQUASH A two-pound butternut squash is small by supermarket standards. If you get a large one, you might use only a quarter of the roasted flesh for this dish. A two-pound butternut squash will yield about 3 cups of cooked squash. If it's extra fibrous or you want to really make it "disappear" into the mac 'n' cheese, run it through the food processor, maybe even adding a little water to thin a bit.
MY OWN "SWEET SPOT" PROPORTIONS I like to use the full amount of squash, it seems like it can "take" a full 16 ounces of pasta, cooked. (And it makes a lot, a full 10 cups.) But that ends up being too much, 12 ounces of pasta would be better.
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BUTTERNUT SQUASH: SUCH A FAVORITE AT THANKSGIVING~ Savory Bread Pudding with Butternut Squash, Chard & Cheddar ~
~ Butternut Squash Lasagna with Butternut Bechamel & Roasted Butternut Squash ~
~ Slow Cooker Butternut Squash with Ginger & Dried Fruit ~
~ more Butternut Squash recipes for Thanksgiving ~
~ Roasted Butternut Squash & Apple ~
~ Squash Puff ~
~ Slow Cooker Sweet Potato (or Pumpkin or Butternut Squash) Grits ~
~ more winter squash recipes ~
from Kitchen Parade, my food column
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