The squash really adds something to this dish -- the flavor is slightly sweet, slightly caramelized and nutty in the background, and is delicious with the saltiness of the cheese and smokiness from the smoked paprika (but just use cayenne pepper or omit entirely if you don't have smoked paprika). It's hard to say that a dish with 16 oz of cheddar cheese and 6 Tbsp of butter is "lighter," but it does feel that way since the bechamel is bound together with squash puree and water, rather than whole milk which is more traditional. I wrote this recipe to use up a few ingredients I had in my fridge, and to avoid using milk which I did not have on hand -- all to say that it's very flexible and easily adapted or adjusted. For example, other cheeses or a combination of cheeses could easily work here, if you're not big in to cheddar or you just have a mix of leftovers. I adapted this recipe from the beautiful incredible Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who in turn adapted it from Martha Stewart https://smittenkitchen.... I made this with croutons on top for some crunch, optional -- just add cubes of stale bread in a single layer before it goes in the oven. —Lily Applebaum
- Makes one huge tray of mac & cheese
smallest winter squash you can find, any variety -- mine was about a 2 lb red kuri squash and produced around 2 C of puree, so you could just use that amount of canned pumpkin or squash puree you already have
elbows or other tube-shaped pasta
sharp cheddar cheese, about 4 1/2 C grated
Clove of garlic, whole and peeled
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Slice your winter squash in half and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Cut off a very thin, level slice in the back of each half so that it can stand upright without rocking on its round edge. Grease or line a baking sheet with parchment and place the squash halves cut side up next to each other. Fill each "bowl" left behind by the seeds and pulp you scooped out with enough water so it's almost at the top of the "bowl." This helps the squash cook faster, and will become the liquid used to bind the roux together for cheese sauce later. Bake until soft and a fork can easily pierce the squash all the way to the bottom, probably around 30 minutes but depends on the size of the squash.
- When the squash comes out of the oven, leave to cool somewhere out of the way. Then, fill your pasta pot with water and set it to boil.
- As you're waiting for the pasta water to boil, grate the cheese. Reserve a quarter cup to sprinkle on top before baking the mac.
- Whenever the water comes to a boil, salt and add your pasta to cook. You should cook it for one minute more than half of the suggested cooking time for your pasta shape on the box. Then, drain and rinse with cold water and set aside. Don't bother to wash the pasta pot, just put it back on the stove.
- Use a spoon to "stir" the "bowl" of each half of squash, as though you were mixing up a puree that you were going to serve inside the squash itself. Scrape the sides in to the water in the middle until you get a pretty loose puree mix. You'll add this to the roux in the next step.
- In the now empty pasta pot, melt all of the butter. Once melted, turn the heat to your stove's lowest setting and add all of the flour and stir with a fork or whisk until the mixture looks smooth and no lumps of flour are visible, about two minutes. Add the paprika or nutmeg if using. Grate the clove of garlic into the pot and stir to mix.
- Keeping the heat on low, add in all of the squash puree you just mixed, stirring as you drop spoonfuls in to the roux. Your goal is to add all of the water and scrape off all of the flesh from cooking the squash without getting squash skin in the mix, so if you have to leave a little bit behind on the squash "walls" that's OK. The mix should be a fun yellow or orange color. Stir with a fork or whisk until the whole mix is the same color and looks smooth.
- Add all of the grated cheese to the mix, in a couple of additions letting most of the cheese melt before adding in more. You can bump up the heat a little bit here to get this going. If the mixture is exceedingly thick, like difficult to stir, add a little bit of warm tap water and stir. You want this mix to be fairly thick, coating the back of a spoon, but just loose enough to be able to be poured in a single stream. It's not essential to get this perfectly one way, so whatever you come out with will definitely work.
- Taste and adjust seasoning; this is really important, because every squash's sweetness level is a little different, and every cheese's saltiness level is different too. Season for a balance you really like, and then add just a little bit more salt remembering that you're about to add a full pound of pasta to the mix.
- Add in all of the pasta, stir until the cheese sauce is coating all of the pasta, and then pour in to whatever casserole or baking dish you have that will fit this monstrous amount of mac and cheese, or split in to separate baking dishes. Literally any shape dish will work.
- Reduce oven temperature to 375, sprinkle the top of your dish with the reserved cheese, and bake until bubbling and crisp on top, about 35 minutes in my oven. Great right out of the oven and even better the next day! Enjoy :)