The method behind both of these recipes is loosely based on Alice Waters’ mac n’ cheese recipe in The Art of Simple Food, pretentiously called ‘Pasta and Cheese Gratin.’
Mac n’ Cheese with Roasted Butternut Squash
The pictures accompanying this recipe are actually from the first time I ever made it, with PH.
The first thing to do is to prep the butternut squash. I usually use a half to a whole squash, depending on the size of the squash and how many people I’m feeding. Erring on the side of too much squash is always a safe bet. Peel the squash, scoop out the seeds, and chop it into bite-sized cubes. Toss the squash in a bit olive oil with any combination of the following: oregano, thyme, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, s&p and maybe a little chili powder. I like to pile on the spices for maximum zestiness. Roast the squash at 400 degrees F for about 20 minutes.
Now would also be a good time to cook the pasta. I like to use rotini or elbow macaroni, but it obviously doesn’t really matter. Boil the pasta ‘til it’s al dente. (As for the amount of pasta, all I’ll say is that when you assemble the mac n’ cheese, the pasta-to-cheese ratio should err on the side of too much cheese, because there’s nothing worse than mac n’ cheese with not enough cheese to cover all the pasta.)
Meanwhile, make the roux. Melt like half a stick of butter in a pot and then add some flour. (Alice Waters recommends using equal parts butter and flour, but I like using less flour. In fact if you use no flour then it’s basically impossible to fuck up the cheese sauce, but then I guess it wouldn’t be a roux.) Whisk continuously over low heat for a few minutes and then start adding in milk, little by little, still whisking. (The quantity of milk depends on how much cheese you’re using. Alice Waters recommends 2 ½ cups for 8 ounces of cheese. I would say that the amount of milk you’re using doesn’t matter all that much, provided that there’s enough milk to make the cheese sauce reasonably liquid-y so that you can coat the pasta in it/so that the mac n’ cheese won’t dry out too much during baking. In fact, if I’m short on milk then I’ll drizzle the baking tray with a little bit of water before popping it in the oven.) Once you’ve added all the milk, add a bay leaf or two and bring the sauce to a simmer. Let it simmer on low for like ten minutes and then turn off the heat. Add grated cheese to the sauce and stir until it all melts in. For this recipe, I like to use sharp or extra sharp cheddar. If you’re wondering why I’m only using one type of cheese, don’t worry – the next recipe uses four different cheeses. I just prefer to keep it simple for this particular recipe.
Spread the pasta evenly in a buttered baking tray and then layer the butternut squash on top, tossing the pasta a little so the squash is evenly distributed. Pour the cheese sauce over the whole thing, making sure it dribbles down to the bottom-most noodles. (If not, then put your wooden spoon in there and mix it up a bit!) Sprinkle breadcrumbs over the top. I like to use a generous amount of breadcrumbs, and I don’t mind using the delicious store-bought Progresso Italian kind. If you’re working with homemade or plain breadcrumbs, I’d recommend adding some oregano, garlic powder and other savory Italian seasonings to it.
Sprinkle some water over the whole thing if it seems like it’s en route to being too dry, and bake it uncovered at 400 degrees for about 15 more minutes or so. Sprinkle with fresh parsley before serving, if you have any.
Here’s another snap from a time I made this mac n’ cheese more recently:
Bacon Mac n’ Cheese with Carmelized Onions
Cook the pasta. Fry the bacon. Remove the bacon from the pan and reserve all the bacon fat. Throw chopped onions in there with plenty of butter. Add a generous amount of dried Italian herb seasoning, which includes basil, marjoram, thyme, oregano and rosemary. (I’d say the thyme is most essential.) Sauté this miracle mixture for a while on high heat, stirring often so the dried herbs don’t burn. Here’s a photo of it that was taken with Andrea’s digital SLR. (A sad side note: I still have not received the battery that I need for my new camera to work. USPS is really eating shit right now. USPS is the middle chick in the human centipede.)
Remove the onions from the heat when they are sufficiently browned. Also don’t forget to chop up the bacon. Make the cheese sauce with cheddar, mozzarella, fontina and a little bit of gruyere. Those were the cheeses Andrea had on hand and the resulting combination was fantastic! Don’t be worried if the mozzarella remains stringy after you melt it – that’s normal, as I’ve learned. The mozzarella was definitely an essential cheese to include though. Andrea and I added a few frozen basil cubes to the sauce last time too, which was definitely a good call.
Now toss the pasta, cheese sauce, crumbled bacon and onions together and arrange the mixture in a baking tray. Top with Italian breadcrumbs and bake at 400 until the top is toasted and golden. Serve with fresh parsley, like so: