Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese

Crisp fall nights call for baking. Lots of baking. Cookies and cakes are obvious go-tos anytime I choose to bake something sweet. When it comes to savory dishes, though, the first thing that always comes to mind is pasta.

There’s just something so nice and comforting about taking a big tray of baked, bubbling, cheesy pasta out of the oven. It’s instant happiness and a whole meal without putting in a lot of effort. Sometimes, if I’m in the mood, I’ll serve a big tray of pasta with a side dish, like a green vegetable or a salad. It can help to feel a little bit better about eating all of that cheesy goodness, even if I know, deep down, that it doesn’t make a damn difference.

When it comes to naming a so-called king of baked pastas, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in my house who disagrees with the fact that it’s macaroni and cheese (baked ziti, a distant second place.) It’s one of the most versatile baked pasta dishes that I can make and everyone loves it. I’m always trying new recipes, too — adding spinach or other vegetables, bacon, or simply just loading up on different kinds of cheese because more cheese, more better. The best part is that even when a recipe doesn’t come out quite as I planned, even bad mac and cheese is good.

This is how, on a whim a few years ago, I ended up with this memorable, very orange — and, dare I say, sort-of healthy — mac.

It all started with a butternut squash lingering in my pantry, one half of which I roasted and pureed, and the other half I diced and sautéed. The puree was stirred into the sauce, helping to cut back on some of the milk and cheese in the recipe. The other half of the squash was diced and cooked with onions and garlic to add to the pasta for a little bite.

I recently thought that butternut carrot puree would be a good alternative to make the dish come together even faster. I thawed a batch of frozen puree overnight in the refrigerator and stirred it in with the cheese to make a super-creamy sauce.

Oh, and if by some chance you want to make this and not eat it right away (yes, it’s hard to do, but it can be done), here’s how. Prepare the recipe up until the point of baking. Coat a layer of wax paper or plastic wrap with butter or non-stick spray and press into the bottom of an oven-proof baking dish, preferably one that can also fit into a gallon-sized zip-top bag. Leave a few inches of the wax paper or plastic wrap hanging over the sides of the dish. Add the mixture to the dish, then wrap and freeze. When completely frozen, you can choose to remove your pasta from the dish (use the extra plastic wrap to help you pull it out), wrap the whole thing in foil and plastic, stick in a gallon zip-top bag, and freeze for up to 3 months.

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese

INGREDIENTS

1 box rotini, or pasta of your choice

For sauce:
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup sweet onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped
3 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
(I use low-fat cheese to help cut back on calories, but use whatever you like)
1 1/2 cups 2% milk
1 cup light cream (or use more milk, if you don’t want the extra calories…)
1/3 cup flour
1 tbsp dried mustard
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1 cup Butternut Carrot Puree
Salt and pepper

For topping:
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

METHOD

Preheat oven to 400* F.

Stir together panko breadcrumbs and parsley. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Saute onion and garlic in a pan with olive oil and butter until soft and translucent. When onion is softened, add flour to pan with more butter if the pan is too dry and stir until you get a thin, paste-like consistency, or a roux. Cook roux to a light golden color, then whisk in milk and cream slowly. Add seasonings and bring to a simmer, whisking periodically. Cook until thickened, then turn heat down and start adding 2 1/2 cups of cheese, a handful at a time while whisking, until you get a thick sauce. Stir in butternut squash puree and set aside.

Cook pasta in boiling, salted water per directions on the package. When done, reserve about a cup of pasta water on the side before draining pasta. Add pasta to cheese sauce and stir to coat. If your sauce looks too thick, add some pasta water. If not, discard the water.

Transfer mixture to a greased, oven-safe dish. Top with remaining 1/2 cup of cheese and breadcrumb mixture. Dot with butter, or drizzle with a little olive oil, and bake 30-45 minutes or until golden brown and bubbling.