October 19, 2012

Baked Pumpkin Mac and Cheese

I never liked macaroni and cheese growing up. In fact, I didn't really like cheese at all; I used to pick cheese off of pizza and never wanted cheese on a hamburger. If mac and cheese was on the menu, I'd ask if I could just have the buttered noodles before the cheese gunk as added. Of course, that all changed when I reached adolescence and adulthood, but I never really got into macaroni and cheese; that is, until I started making it myself. I've reliably tweaked Alton Brown's stove-top recipe many times, but his baked version just doesn't do it for me. Too many breadcrumbs, not the right texture. Sometimes my eggs will curdle, even though they never do when I do the stove-top version.

But I've finally created a baked mac and cheese worth freaking out about. And it has pumpkin in it.

Every fall, I put squash and pumpkin in everything. Cakes, cookies, pies, brownies, pasta, soups, salads, you name it. So naturally I started perusing pumpkin mac and cheese recipes. They seemed suspect though; most either just simmered pumpkin puree in heavy cream (a bit much I think,) or used far too little pumpkin. I knew I didn't want eggs, either, so I figured the best bet was a bechamel, with cheese and pumpkin stirred in. And those pesky breadcrumbs? Forget it; just top it with cheese! All you really want is crispy, browned cheese anyway. Why bother with bread?

So this recipe is what I came up with. And it's the best mac and cheese I've ever eaten. The pumpkin is very subtle; you could not tell people, and they probably wouldn't notice. But it adds a bit of sweetness and depth, and most importantly, keeps it really creamy. Cheese sauce can gunk up sometimes, but pumpkin? It stays moist no matter what. That's why pumpkin cookies are always moist and cake-like.

The other big revelation in this recipe is the use of vegetable stock for some of the liquid. I've finally perfected a homemade vegetable stock recipe that is just...liquid flavor. It makes everything taste so savory and deeply-flavored. I'll post that recipe sometime soon, but in the meantime, feel free to use your own vegetable stock (or chicken stock for non-vegetarians) or store-bought, or use all milk for the liquid (like most mac and cheese recipes). The stock really does add a different dimension though.

For the cheese, use one or more of your favorites. Sharp cheddar is the standard, and gruyere and jack are pretty common. I wouldn't use anything too fancy, because the pumpkin, stock, onions, herbs, and spices will hide any nuanced flavors you might get. I like using mostly a standard melting cheese (like cheddar or jack), plus a smoked cheese for flavor (smoked gouda), and an aged dry cheese for salty-nuttiness (parmesan or romano).

And frankly, a little smoked gouda and chipotle powder make the mac and cheese taste like it has bacon in it. But it doesn't. And that's awesome.

Finally; make sure you brown the crap out of the top. You don't want it just dry up there, you want all-over browned crispy cheesy goodness.

Baked Pumpkin Mac and Cheese
Serves 4-8. Bake in 4 mini-casseroles for a dinner portion, or 6 to 8 ramekins for side dishes, or one 8x8 square pan for dishing.

  • 1/2 cup finely-diced onions (yellow, white, Spanish, or Vidalia) or leeks 
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons, or 1/4 cup) butter 
  • 3 tablespoons flour (for gluten-free, use sweet rice flour) 
  • Spices and flavorings: 
    • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder 
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard 
    • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder 
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground annato (optional; provides the bright yellow color) 
    • Salt and pepper, to taste 
    • Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste 
    • 1 bay leaf 
  • Fresh herbs: pick one, use a few teaspoons (if dried, use 1/2 teaspoon) 
    • Thyme (provides the most classic flavor) 
    • Sage (for the wonderful pumpkin-sage flavor combo) 
    • Rosemary (if you love rosemary; it'll be more of a rosemary mac and cheese) 
  • 1 cup whole milk or half-and-half 
  • 1 cup vegetable stock (or chicken stock, or more milk) 
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree (homemade or canned; can use any winter squash) 
  • 8-10oz. grated cheese, plus more for topping. Use whatever you like, but my favorite combo is: 
    • 2oz. smoked gouda 
    • 6-7oz. cheddar-jack blend 
    • 1/2 oz. grated parmesan or romano 
  • 8oz. (half a pound) elbow, penne, or shell pasta (for gluten-free, corn pasta is my fav, but there are lots of options: brown rice, quinoa, blends, etc.) 

  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Bring a large stockpot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions; drain and set aside until cheese sauce is ready. 
  2. Heat a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add butter and onions; saute until onions are softened (or if desired, browned). Meanwhile, combine milk/cream and vegetable stock (or, use all whole milk instead) in a saucepan or microwavable measuring cup and heat just below a simmer. 
  3. Add desired herbs and spices to onions. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it is incorporated and no longer raw; 1-2 minutes. Add bay leaf. 
  4. Slowly add hot milk/stock mixture, stirring constantly until completely incorporated. Bring to a simmer; mixture should thicken. Turn heat down to low. 
  5. Add cheese bit by bit, stirring until melted and smooth. Add pumpkin and stir; mixture will be very thick. Taste and adjust seasonings. 
  6. Add pasta to cheese sauce, stirring until combined. Remove bay leaf. Divide mac and cheese among four mini-casserole dishes (or one large casserole). Bake for 20-30 minutes; bits of pasta should start to brown and sauce should bubble. 
  7. Turn on broiler. Top each casserole with more grated cheese and broil until well-browned and crispy on top. Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.