What's not to love about a bubbly, gooey, homemade macaroni and cheese? Well, as much as I love this comfort food queen, I always feel a bit guilty after eating it. When I was trying to figure out what to serve at my son's third birthday party (I needed to feed a crowd of about 20 adults and kids), mac and cheese seemed like a great idea: you can make it ahead and it's usually a crowd pleaser. But I was determined to find a few ways to make this classic a little bit healthier while keeping it delicious.
My solution? First I used Barilla Plus elbows for the pasta--I've written about my love for this whole grain pasta before. It has more protein and fiber than regular pasta, so definitely a step in the right direction. Then I took an idea that Katie has posted about to incorporate some vegetables into the dish: I substituted a couple of cups of butternut squash puree for some of the bechamel sauce. The color was perfect and my healthier macaroni and cheese definitely looked the part of its more indulgent cousin.
And the results? Well I thought it was delicious, and our guests (including a bunch of picky 2 and 3 year olds) gave it rave reviews. The squash puree also freezes well, so it can be made ahead when you are in the mood to roast some squash. This is not exactly spa cuisine (and this is not quite as virtuous as Katie's version)--there's still plenty of cheese and some butter. But I feel better about eating it and serving it to my guests!
Butternut Squash Puree
1 large butternut squash
Preheat over to 375. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil. Cut squash in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds and pulp from cavity. Place squash cut-side down on baking sheet and roast until soft, 40-50 minutes. Let cool, then scrape the flesh into a blender or food processer and puree until smooth (you can add a little water if it's too thick to blend). One time-saving idea? Substitute a few jars of squash baby food for the homemade squash puree.
Guiltless Macaroni and Cheese
1 box Barilla Plus elbows
4 Tb (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
3 cups 2% milk
2 cups butternut squash puree
16 oz. shredded mild cheddar cheese (about 4 cups)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp. nutmet (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 and butter a 9x13 pan. Bring a pot of salted water to boil and cook the elbows until they are a little underdone (about 5 minutes). Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Melt the butter in a large pot or dutch oven. Whisk in the flour and stir for a couple of minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk to keep things smooth, let simmer until thickened, stirring frequently, about 5-10 minutes. Add in the squash puree, the salt, and nutmeg. Once incorporated, stir in 3 cups of the shredded cheese. Once the cheese is melted, stir the pasta into the cheese sauce. Pour the pasta mixture into the 9x13 pan and sprinkle the remaining cup of shredded cheese over the top. (If you are making this ahead you can stop here and refrigerate for a couple of days or freeze for a couple of months). Bake until bubbly and starting to brown on top, 20-30 minutes.