Macaroni cheese is way up near the top of my comfort food list. When I was little I had an impressive ability to consume vast quantities of any kind of pasta bake in one sitting. It was as if my stomach doubled its normal capacity in order to consume extra amounts of this wonderful food. It’s still one of my favourite things to eat now, only my stomach has lost a fair amount of its old elasticity.
I did manage to squeeze a little second serving of this macaroni cheese into my protesting stomach though. It was just too good not to. Macaroni cheese and butternut squash! That’s two top comfort foods rolled into one.
But here’s my thing with macaroni cheese.
I love it, but only when it’s really good macaroni cheese. Really good macaroni cheese is tasty, creamy, gooey and with a bit of crispy chew going on in the topping. Anything below ‘really good’ is verging on disappointing and anything below average is just awful; I’m thinking tasteless, mushy, occasionally congealed and a totally uniform, boring looking cream colour. And if the cheese sauce tastes more like flour than it does cheese, well then, things are really bad.
So, in order to ensure I never commit the crime of bland macaroni cheese production, I always apply the following rules:
1) Use a super strong flavoured cheese, or even better, cheeses (I’m mostly thinking a really mature Cheddar and Gruyère here. I just love how Gruyère melts).
2) Use more cheese than you think you should….it looks bad, it looks like you shouldn’t, I know, but it just has to be done. Mac’n’cheese just doesn’t work well in half measures, it has to taste of cheese (clue’s in the name).
3) Grate lots more cheese over the top of the dish…a cheesy chewy crust is essential. And who doesn’t find those stuck on crusty bits around the edge of the dish the best?
4) Add a good dollop of mustard, not so much it makes the sauce taste over mustardy, but enough to add a bit of punch.
5) I accept some may consider this bit cheating as it’s making the dish a little bit more than macaroni and cheese, but I can’t help but add at least one little extra such as tomato, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli or bacon.The original recipe for this macaroni cheese was designed to be a slimmed down version of traditional macaroni cheese, using the puréed squash to add extra flavour and creaminess. Only this ‘slimmed down’ macaroni cheese got the bacon treatment and slimmed down it was no more. The sweetness of the squash was just crying out for that salty hit of bacon. You have to hand it to them, squash and bacon make a perfect match. As does squash and sage, which is precisely why this macaroni cheese received a healthy dosing of sage too.
Using puréed squash to make the cheese sauce is a brilliant idea. What you get is a velvety, slightly sweet and addictively (take this as a warning) tasty sauce in a cheery orange colour…no beige food here. I had to eat many, many spoonfuls of the sauce before it got anywhere near the pasta in the baking dish.
Butternut squash macaroni cheese, adapted from Delicious. magazine
- ½ a butternut squash, about 400g, peeled, deseeded and chopped
- 300ml milk
- 2 tbsp whipping cream
- 1-2 tsp mustard (to taste and depending on how strong your mustard)
- Generous grating of nutmeg
- 350g macaroni (as the observant amongst you may have noticed, we didn’t have enough macaroni cheese and had to sub in some spirali)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 150g bacon lardons/ bacon rashers, diced
- 1 onion, sliced
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 10 sage leaves, chopped
- 150g vintage cheddar, grated, plus an extra tbsp (or 2) to top
- 2 tbsp grated Gruyère or Parmesan
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan180°C/gas 6.
- Put the squash and milk into a pan and bring to a gentle simmer. Continue to cook for about 10-12 minutes until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife. Take care the milk doesn’t simmer too hard or too much will evaporate, leaving you with less liquid to produce the right consistency sauce. Add the cream and mustard to the pan then whizz to a purée with a stick blender. Add the nutmeg and season to taste.
- Cook the macaroni in a pan of salted water for about 5 minutes until it starts to soften but is still fairly firm. Drain, then add a little of the olive oil to prevent it sticking together.
- Meanwhile, heat about 1tbsp of the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat, add the bacon and fry for a couple of minutes until golden and crisp. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Reduce the heat under the frying pan to medium-low. Add a little extra olive oil to the pan if there isn’t much bacon fat in there (although there most likely will be) then gently fry the onion for a few minutes until soft. Stir in garlic and sage and cook for another minute or two.
- Add the onion mixture to the purée along with the bacon, then stir in the cheddar. The sauce should be fairly thick but still with a little looseness to it. Add a little splash more milk if you think it could do with loosening up a little. The pasta will go on absorbing some of the sauce as it continues to cook, and you want to make sure things stay nice and creamy.
- Mix the sauce with the macaroni, check the seasoning, then pour to a 1.2 litre oven-proof dish. Top with the extra cheddar and Parmesan/Gruyère.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden on top. Allow to stand for a minute or two before serving.