Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70°F. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease and flour two 8 × 2-inch round cake pans or line the bottoms with wax or parchment paper.
This week I've been on something of a media fast, as much as one can be these days. I know it must seem irresponsible of me. It must appear that I have thrown up my hands; that I have buried my head in the sand; that I have stuck my fingers in my ears and chanted "nah-nah-nah-nah-nah." But I stand by it. Staying away from the drama of politics right now is keeping me relatively zen.
What's more, I don't know many people with the time to really examine and digest what's going on right now. Everyone I know works all the time or has kids to take care of (a.k.a. works all the time) or is snowed under by the day-to-day. Does anyone actually have the time or energy to process all this drama?
And so here I am again, in the kitchen, where things may not always go as planned, but where, if things go awry, I can always pull out the almond butter and a long spoon and call it a day.
But today, one of my hare-brained ideas came to fruition. I know the seasonal temptation to put pumpkin or butternut squash in everything is making eyes roll all over the nation (when eyes aren't rolling because of the circus in Washington), but don't worry. At least this recipe isn't pumpkin-spiced.
When I first sat down to think through the concept of a butternut squash mac and cheese, my instinct was to go at it the traditional way--with a mornay sauce. But as delicious as a brick of congealed cheese and noodles is, I wanted something cleaner and less stodgy. I won't go so far as to say "healthy," because, as we all know, that term is fraught with complications and opinions. But I will say that this take on baked pasta is healthier than the usual cheddar-greased oil slick of overcooked elbow pasta and bright yellow cheese.
You can go in so many directions with this recipe. I don't want to overwhelm you, but I do want to give you lots of options. For starters, you can use a variety of winter squashes here. I used kuri squash because it's what I found at the farmer's market last weekend, but butternut squash or pumpkin would also work nicely. Any firm, dense winter squash will do (I wouldn't use delicata or spaghetti squash for this--they're just a little too watery).
Second, you can easily make this vegan by using a milk substitute such as coconut milk (which I would prefer for its richness and fairly unobtrusive flavor), and vegan margarine instead of butter in the crumb topping. Use silken tofu to give the sauce body and a protein boost. To make this gluten-free, use your favorite GF pasta, and use ground toasted nuts instead of panko for the gratin.
I used whole grain pasta here because I actually like it--in addition to not being totally devoid of nutrients it retains a nice bite after cooking. I know lots of people think whole wheat pasta is an abomination. If you feel this way, use regular old pasta. As for which shape to use, I went with shells, but any pasta with ridges (to cling to the sauce) works perfectly.
Also feel free to vary the sauce depending on what you have in your fridge. I can see using cottage cheese, cream cheese, mozzarella, or any good melty cheese here. Add herbs or spices if you like. Go wild. This recipe is really forgiving.
Finally, I just noticed that some brands are now selling their pasta in 12-ounce boxes rather than 1-pound. Maybe it's just because I haven't purchased pasta in so long that I'm only noticing this now. In any case, even though I'm feeling a bit grumpy about it, I wrote this recipe for a 12-ounce box of pasta. It still makes quite a lot of food.
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Combine in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil:
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 1/2 cups milk or a combination of milk and cream
1 1/2 pounds firm-fleshed, orange winter squash (such as butternut, kuri, or pumpkin), peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 medium leek (about 8 ounces)
1 bay leaf
Turn down the heat and allow to simmer, covered, until the squash and leeks are very tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and cook until al dente, according to the instructions on the box:
12 ounces whole grain pasta
When the squash is tender, take off the heat, remove the bay leaf, and purée the mixture with an immersion blender or regular blender.
Whisk in until very smooth:
1/2 cup ricotta (whole milk or skim)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons smoked paprika, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Toss the cooked, drained noodles with the sauce. Taste and season accordingly.
Melt in a small skillet over medium heat:
2 tablespoons butter
Add and sauté until browned and fragrant:
1/2 cup panko or bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Grease a 9x13-inch casserole or several individual dishes or ramekins. Pour in the noodles and top with the bread crumbs. Bake until heated through and nicely browned on top, about 20 minutes.