I first sampled this taste of heaven during my year abroad living in Italy. On a visit to the charming Renaissance city of Mantova (Mantua), I was introduced to the town's signature dish of handmade ravioli stuffed with a velvety smooth puree of pumpkin, crushed almondy Amaretti cookies, and a hint of spices. The al dente pillows of precious filled pasta were bathed in a luxurious sauce of brown butter and a shower of parmigiano.
That meal has haunted me for 6 years.
And it has coaxed me into creating this Italian-American fusion of ultimate comfort, Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Sage and Gingersnap-Pecan Crust.
Butternut squash is one of my favorite ingredients to work with during the fall and winter because it just exudes a sweet, hearty, warmth. When it's roasted, all the sugars caramelize and the flavor of the squash is intensified.
Pair it with the other star ingredient in this dish, the aged Gouda, and we have ourselves a sweet-and-savory homerun!
The technique to making this dish is pretty standard as far as mac and cheese goes. After sautéing the onions and sage, a roux is made with flour, chicken stock, and milk.
Then the squash is added to the mix...
...and smashed in a bit to fully incorporate.
Once the sauce is made, it is added to the macaroni (since we can't all be as blessed as the Mantuans with their homemade pasta at a finger's snap).
After that, comes the magic of toppings. I loved how the nutty spice of the Amaretti cookies played with the flavor of the pumpkin in the Tortelli di Zucca. In this mac and cheese, that sweet, unexpected crunch translates as gingersnaps. I also threw in a handful of chopped pecans too because I love how their faintly maple flavor goes with sweet potatoes, and I thought...butternut squash? Sweet potato? Pretty similar, no? (At the very least, both orange.)
I may not be able to jet-set to Italy whenever I get the craving for some tortelli lovin', but that doesn't mean I can't get my fix of pumpkin and spice and everything nice! Surprise your guests with this dish this winter. The presentation is beautiful and homey, and one bite will have them coming for more.
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Sage and Gingersnap-Pecan Crust
1 small butternut squash (about 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 3 cups)
1 lb elbow macaroni
1 small onion, diced
1 cup chicken stock
1 ½ cups nonfat milk
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1 tablespoon fresh sage, minced
2 cups grated aged Marieke Gouda cheese
1 cup grated Stravecchio Parmesan cheese (Sartori Reserve, 2 year aged)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
pinch of cayenne pepper
½ cup crumbled gingersnap cookies (about 8 cookies)
½ cup chopped pecans
1 tbsp olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Toss the squash with olive oil, salt and pepper to season. Roast on a foil-lined baking sheet for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned. Set aside and turn the oven down to 350 degrees.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add macaroni and cook until al dente according to the package instructions, about 8 minutes.
3. While the pasta cooks, heat a large pan over medium heat. Add the butter, chopped onion, and sage. Saute about 4-5 minutes until onions are translucent. Add the flour and stir to combine. Let the mixture cook for 1-2 more minutes. Whisk in stock and milk, and let come to a boil to thicken up.
4. Next, add the cheeses, mustard, nutmeg, and cayenne. Stir to combine. Then, mix in the squash. Use a whisk to mash up the squash a little. I prefer to leave a few chunky pieces of the squash in the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.
5. Drain the cooked pasta and return it to the pot. Pour the sauce over the pasta and combine well. Pour the mac 'n' cheese into a buttered casserole dish. Sprinkle the gingersnap cookie crumble and pecans over the top and drizzle with a little olive oil.
6. Cover with foil and bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until lightly browned on top, about 30 minutes more.