Let me tell you a funny thing about being an amateur cook -- you're still an amateur! There is still a chance that those should-be-in-a food-hall-of-fame dishes I saw on TV won't look and taste quite like they should when I attempt them in my own kitchen. Let's face facts: I have no formal training in food. I'm not raining on my own parade. I just myself an optimistic realist. Make sense? :)
Thankfully, I haven't yet encountered any true culinary disasters. Yes, there have been dishes that don't taste that great and baking endeavors that I wouldn't photograph, but nothing truly inedible. ("Thank goodness!" says Matt.) Then again, I haven't really pushed the envelope when it comes to my cooking. I save that stuff for the restaurants I frequent, usually ordering items I'll most likely never create it at home. There's a fine line between a challenge and garbage-bound food. As I get older, I become more and more aware of what I am (and am not) capable.
But, at some point, you grow tired of saving recipes for a rainy day, no matter how out of the box they are. The kind of rainy day that affords you extra prep time, an infinite supply of perseverance, all of the ingredients at arm's length, and the willpower not to snack whilst cooking. I know myself and can safely say all three of those things will never ever happen. Cough snacking cough. Again, just keepin' it real.
This recipe for butternut squash macaroni and cheese is one that I've had for almost two years, practically an eternity in kitchen time for me. Two autumns have come and gone, harvests overflowing with golden gourds, and I didn't do a damn thing about it. In fact, I came up with every excuse in the world not to make this. "I can't make a whole dish of macaroni for just myself." "I already have the recipe for the best mac and cheese in the universe." Or, my very favorite: "Butternut squash in pasta? That sounds like weird hippie food. Pass." Still, they weren't enough. A third fall wasn't going to pass by without this baked pasta gracing my lips.
Though I like to think that I'm the one who willed myself into making this, I've gotta give some credit to very kind friends who presented me with so many wonderful gifts at my bridal shower, two of which were christened for this very casserole. Say hello to the newest additions to my kitchen: shiny red pot and OCD cutting board. Aren't they lovely?
Mind you, neither of which are necessary to make the mac and cheese. Shiny red pot or not, a few easy steps will still yield the warmest, yummiest, most filling macaroni dish you've ever had. The mashed butternut squash and the cheeses make the creamiest sauce that no one but the cook would believed contained -- gasp -- nutrients! And, all of that anxiety over using a slightly unfamiliar fruit (squash has seeds, y'all) and trying something new was totally unwarranted. This was e-a-s-y, with a capital E.
Chewy little pasta bowties have all the right nooks and crannies to catch the rich sauce and cling to the crunchy bread crumbs. It's almost wrong that one bite gets you crunchy, chewy, cheesy, salty, and smooth. Add satisfying without the guilt 30 minutes later to that list, too. In other words, this is the kind of dinner that hits all the right notes after whatever kind of day you've had.
Behold the kind of comfort food that quiets your mind and revs your tastes buds. That's my favorite kind, in case anyone's keeping track.
Macaroni and Cheese with Butternut Squash
(adapted slightly from Martha Stewart's recipe)
A few notes: I used bowtie (farfalle) pasta, but feel free to use whatever small-ish pasta you have on hand. Anything with folds and caves to capture the yummy sauce will be divine.
1 small butternut squash (about 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 3 cups)
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1 1/2 cups milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound elbow macaroni
4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup)
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, finely grated (1 ounce)
2 tablespoons fine breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil
Nonstick cooking spray
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine squash, stock, and milk in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium; simmer until squash is tender when pierced with a fork, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Mash contents of saucepan; stir in nutmeg, cayenne, and salt, and season with black pepper. Stir to combine.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles; cook until al dente according to package instructions, about 8 minutes. Drain, and transfer to a large bowl; stir in squash mixture, cheddar, ricotta, and 2 tablespoons Parmesan.
Lightly coat a 9-inch square baking dish (4 inches deep) with cooking spray. Transfer noodle mixture to dish. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs, remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan, and oil; sprinkle evenly over noodle mixture.
Cover with foil, and bake 20 minutes. Remove foil, and continue baking until lightly browned and crisp on top, 30 to 40 minutes more. Serve immediately and enjoy!