I started with this one from Smitten Kitchen, which had the appeal of not requiring me to boil the pasta OR make a cheese sauce first! Unfortunately, it was too good to be true...the dish came out more like pasta with some melted cheese on it, and was greasy instead of creamy. Even Deb at Smitten Kitchen later posted another mac & cheese recipe after deciding this super-easy one wasn't up to her standards! I considered giving that one a try, but making croutons for the topping sounded a bit ambitious (remember, my cooking is SIMPLY wholesome!) and a pound and a half of cheese plus a stick of butter for a pound of pasta seemed a bit excessive.
So I went back to Ellie Krieger, the queen of lightening up traditional favorites. A few years back I made her mac & cheese recipe for my in-laws, but couldn't really remember if I liked it. Time to try again! Well, I am very happy with the results. This recipe is way more wholesome - there is only roughly a half pound of cheese for a pound of pasta, a ratio I think is much more reasonable, and she managed to include a vegetable for some added nutrients. Plus, it is actually really tasty! Let me be clear - this is not the ooey gooey mac & cheese with the buttery crust that you would get in a restaurant. But if you are looking for a healthier version, this one is very enjoyable. The squash actually helps create a creamy consistency and adds a little sweetness, which is balanced by the mustard and cayenne. It tasted good right out of the oven, and then again on day 2 reheated in the microwave, so it's also a nice dish to have in the fridge.
Mac & Cheese (with Squash!)
adapted from Food Network
1 pound whole wheat pasta (elbow, or I used spirals because I couldn't find whole wheat elbows)
2 10-ounce packages frozen pureed winter squash
2 cups 1 percent milk
4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, shredded, reserving 1/2 cup for topping
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (this is the original amount, which does not add a ton of heat, so feel free to add more if you prefer a good amount of spice)
2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons grated parmesan or romano cheese, divided
2 tablespoons plain bread crumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with non-stick spray.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until tender but firm (subtract about 2 minutes from the cooking time on the box). Drain in a colander when cooked.
Meanwhile, place frozen squash on a microwave-safe plate, cut slits in plastic, and microwave 4-6 minutes until completely thawed. This is also a good time to shred the cheese if you bought blocks, collect the rest of the ingredients, and start making the topping (combine bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons parmesan/romano, and oil in a small bowl).
Once the pasta is in the colander and the squash is thawed, add squash and milk to the empty pot. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking a few times, until mixture is smooth and almost simmering. (Finish making the topping while it cooks if you haven't already). Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese (except the 1/2 cup reserved cheddar and 2 tablespoons of parmesan/romano), salt, mustard and cayenne pepper. Add the pasta and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to the baking dish.
Sprinkle the reserved half cup of cheddar over the mac & cheese, followed by the bread crumb mixture. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and broil for 3 minutes or until the top is crisp and nicely browned.
Serves 8 as a side dish or lunch portion