Fall is my favorite season of the year, and I’m lucky to live in a place where I can experience it. College football, Thanksgiving, turning leaves, cooler temperatures: these are all some of my favorite things about fall.
Of course, I’m leaving out the food that it brings, but that’s somewhat of a given. I think I could live off roasted fall root vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, parsnips (my personal favorite), and butternut squash. When accented with roasted garlic and fresh herbs, I think there is not much else that's better. For those of you who can’t quite do with that much monotony, there is always macaroni and cheese.
But this? This I can get behind. A rich-tasting cheese sauce is enriched with both pureed and diced roasted butternut squash for some variation in texture, as well as sweet caramelized onions (because I can’t seem to make anything without them). Hearty and nutty whole wheat pasta complements the Parmesan cheese and sweet squash. A toasty crumb topping crowns the whole thing. It is glorious.
That means that in less than sixty minutes you could be digging into a plateful of this.
Healthier Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
Inspired by In Sock Monkey Slippers
In efforts to make the macaroni healthier, I used mostly reduced-fat products: reduced-fat cheddar cheese, reduced-fat cream cheese, and skim milk. However, use whatever you have on hand, knowing that the finished product will taste good no matter what you use (although then I can't necessarily vouch for its wholesomeness). I prefer the flavor of whole-wheat pasta and whole-wheat breadcrumbs, so I used both here. Again, use whatever you prefer. Although the whole squash is roasted, only about 3/4 of it is used. Use all if you like.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, sliced into 1/2-inch half-moons
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
3/4 cup skim milk
1 cup grated reduced-fat cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (the real stuff, please!)
2 cups whole wheat macaroni or short-cut pasta
1 slice whole-wheat sandwich bread (or 1/2 cup of whole-wheat bread crumbs)
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place squash on baking sheet and season liberally with salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly. Loosely cover the squash with another sheet of aluminum foil and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Once the squash is tender, remove the top piece of foil, toss, and return to the oven for 10 minutes more, until the cubes have just started to brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. (The squash can be roasted several days ahead and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use.) When the squash is cool enough to handle, mash 1/2 cup with a fork or potato masher. Set aside along with 1 cup of roasted cubed squash.
Meanwhile, heat a large saucepan or pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they become translucent, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper. When browned bits begin to form on the bottom of the pan, deglaze with a few tablespoons of water and stir to release the browned bits. Allow the water to cook off and the onions to continue browning. Continue this process - allowing the onions to brown and then deglazing the pan - until the onions are soft, sweet, and a deep golden brown, about 15 minutes longer.
While the onions cook, heat a pot of water over high heat. Once the water begins to boil, season very liberally with salt and add the pasta. Stir to make sure the pasta doesn't stick together. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes depending on the brand and type of pasta. When the pasta is cooked, drain and set aside.
Once the onions have caramelized, add the butter to the pot and allow to melt. When the butter has melted, add flour and whisk to form a thick paste. Continue whisking constantly for about 1 more minute. Slowly add the milk and whisk to combine.
Next add the cheeses and the butternut squash puree and roasted cubes. Whisk to combine and melt the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt, though, as the Parmesan is pretty salty on its own. Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce and stir to combine.
To make the bread crumbs, process the bread in a food processor until it becomes coarse crumbs. Alternatively, if you don't have a food processor (like me), bread crumbs can be made successfully by grating a slice of frozen bread on the large holes of a box grater.
Spray an 8-by-8-inch baking dish or similarly-sized dish (I used a cake pan) with nonstick cooking spray and transfer the macaroni and cheese to it. Sprinkle evenly with the breadcrumbs and transfer to the oven. Cook in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are evenly browned and toasty.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before digging in. The macaroni and cheese will keep, stored well in the refrigerator, for up to 4 days.