I'm not really sure how to do food styling for mac and cheese - as you can tell from this photo. Oh - a chunk or orange stuff, yum. Well don't let my bad photography fool you - this mac and cheese is the bomb. It's the ultimate comfort food, and I should know.
You see, I lost my cat last month to illness. Other pet owners out there might understand this - he and his (adopted) brother were my first pets as an adult. That is a whole different situation from childhood pets, or even pets you get later as a family. I literally think of my boys as my children, so this was extremely difficult for me. It was also very sudden. Animals, as you may know, hide their sickness so that they won't be perceived as weak. Which means that by the time they start acting sick, it is often too late. In our case, we took him in the same day he was acting weird and found out that night that there was nothing we could do. He was gone the next day.
The grief affected me like the flu - I had fever, chills, and nausea. The only thing I could stand to eat was macaroni and cheese, and after a couple of days of my husband making me the boxed stuff, I finally started cooking again. I made this butternut squash mac and cheese and lived off it for a week. It was definitely very comforting.
It's ooey gooey with both cheddar and Gruyere, with a bit of caramelized onion, pops of salty bacon, and sweet butternut squash - partially mashed so that there is sweetness throughout, but also some chunks here and there. I even splurged and used regular, white pasta so that I could get my favorite shape - gemelli.
The top is sprinkled with more cheese and buttery breadcrumbs. Perfection. This is possibly the most delicious food ever. So whether you are sad or you just like macaroni and cheese, go dive face first into a bowl of this stuff. You won't regret it.
Butternut Squash and Bacon Mac and Cheese
adapted from Brown Eyed Baker
12 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into pieces
1 small butternut squash (1-2 lbs), peeled and cubed
1 small yellow onion, chopped
Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
8 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
4 tbsp all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
8 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 2 cups), divided
8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 2 cups), divided
pinch of nutmeg
1 lb short pasta of your choice
1 cup panko or breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish. Heat a large pot of salted water over high heat for the pasta; cover.
In a large, heavy skillet, fry the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Pour off all but 2 tbsp of the bacon grease.
Adjust the heat to medium-low and add the butternut squash and onion to the bacon grease. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash and onion are browned and cooked through. Once cooked, use the back of a wooden spoon to mash up the mixture (it doesn't have to be completely smooth - leave some chunks in for texture).
Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook the pasta according to the box directions for al dente pasta (if your box doesn't specify al dente, cook it for 1 to 2 minutes shorter than the time called for - it shouldn't be cooked the whole way through). When the pasta is finished cooking, drain it in a colander and rinse with cold water.
While the pasta is cooking, make the sauce. In a large saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, whisk in the flour and cook for about 1 minute, until the flour starts to brown a bit and smells nutty, whisking constantly. Add the milk a little at a time, making sure the mixture is smooth before the next addition. It will be paste-like at first, then gradually thin out. About halfway through, it should by thin enough to add the rest of the milk in a slow stream. Allow the sauce to come to a simmer, stirring frequently to keep the bottom from burning.
Once the sauce comes to a simmer, stir in 6 oz each of the Gruyere and cheddar cheeses, adding a handful at a time and stirring with a wooden spoon until completely melted before adding the next handful. Add a pinch of nutmeg, season with salt and pepper, and turn off the heat.
Add the cooked pasta, bacon, and butternut squash mixture to the sauce. Stir with a wooden spoon until everything is completely combined and evenly distributed. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish.
Melt the remaining 4 tbsp butter. In a small bowl, mix the melted butter with the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the macaroni and cheese with the remaining shredded cheeses. Sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture on top of the cheese.
Bake until browned and bubbly, about 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.