Last week, I had an epiphany.
It was a Tuesday night, I was pulling a casserole dish out of the oven, and my friend Lydia had come over for dinner.
7:00 p.m., exactly, was when I had my epiphany:
Creamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese.
Pictured: the real deal in Macaroni and Cheese makeovers—Macaroni and Cheese with Butternut Squash and Panko Bread Crumbs.
I’m not gonna lie, I was incredibly skeptical when I first started making it. Butternut squash (in my experience) can have an overbearing flavor when prepared incorrectly. Sure, it’s creamy, golden, and beautiful, but I can only eat so much without the help of a little butter.
But, as per my resolutions to figure out little ways to eat healthier, I had to try my favorite comfort food whether it meant vegetables or not.
What I love about this recipe is how incredibly simple it is to switch from the fat-laden world of two pounds of cheese (as with my past recipes here and here) to the more healthful world of half cheese, half squash. Bring the squash to a boil in milk and broth and let the steam do the tenderizing work. Once soft to the pressure of a fork, the squash can be puréed in a food processor (or blender) and whipped together with the cheese you will be using (no flour, butter, or oily roux here; just squash, cheese, and steam).
When we finally sat down to eat, I couldn’t get over the enhanced flavors in this dish. Normally, macaroni and cheese is a bit two dimensional—pasta + cheese. After a few bites, the palate fails to pick up on new flavors, and I know from experience that I tend to go on autopilot as I scarf down the starchy carbs.
But, in this version, the butternut squash brings life to other ingredients in the dish that may fail to be actualized when you’re tasting it. The macaroni only has a subtle “squash-like” flavor, and it’s noticeably lighter and heavenly, leaving less room for guilt when the plate is clean.
At one point, Lydia looked over at me, startled, and said, “I think I like this better than regular macaroni and cheese.”
I agreed emphatically.
Creamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese is not some health food fad version of a classic American dish. It’s something entirely different—it’s better…creamier…more flavorful. It’s something I can’t wait to make again.
Creamy Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 8 servings (about 1 1/2 cup each)
Calories: 375.5 (see here for full nutritional information)
Prep Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Cook Time: 50 minutes
This recipe transforms the basic homemade cheese sauce of a traditional macaroni and cheese with a healthy vegetarian-friendly twist: butternut squash. Where most recipes would ask that you use three to four cups cheese for the cream sauce, this recipe cuts the cheese in half and uses puréed butternut squash as a substitute. See below for how to make this revision.
*5 cups butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed into 1 to 1 1/2-inch pieces
*1 1/2 cups milk (I used skim)
*1 1/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (use vegetable for vegetarian-friendly recipe)
*3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
*1 teaspoon coarse salt
*1 teaspoon pepper
*1 (16-ounce) box elbow macaroni
*1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
*1 cup crumbled blue cheese*
*Panko bread crumbs, for garnishing
*Note: not a fan of blue? Try switching your proportions to 1 1/4 cups Parmesan and 3/4 cup blue; or, substitute blue for you favorite mild or sharp cheese such as mozzarella or Cheddar.
1.) Peel, seed, and cube butternut squash, then set aside. In a nonstick, medium-sized saucepan, bring the milk, broth, and garlic to a simmer. Add squash and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a lid and simmer until squash is tender (about 20 to 25 minutes).
2.) Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350F and prepare elbow macaroni according to package instructions. Remember to keep the two rules of pasta in mind: 1.) the water should taste like “sea water” (so the pasta has flavor) and 2.) the pasta should be cooked al dente (firm, but still tender). Strain and reserve for cheese sauce (do not rinse in cold water).
3.) When squash is tender, remove from heat and transfer to a food processor (or blender). Pulse until puréed (about 30 seconds), and pour purée into a bowl. Mix in Parmesan and blue cheese and fold in macaroni. Since squash will be hot, be mindful of steam when processing. Pour macaroni and cheese into a greased baking dish (about 9 x 13 inches will do), garnish with Panko bread crumbs, and bake until golden and bubbly on top (about 20 minutes). Remove from oven and rest for several minutes before serving.
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Written by: Helana Brigman