It wasn’t until I was old enough to babysit that I ever tried Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The parents who hired me left a box for me to prepare for their kids. I followed the directions, plopping in globs of margarine and sprinkling the mysterious orange cheese powder over the pasta elbows. When I tasted it, it was like nothing I’d ever had! My mother rarely prepared Mac and Cheese, but when she did it was with milk and cheddar cheese. The boxed variety tasted nothing like the homemade version. I admit, I did fall in love with the processed crap. I begged Mom to buy it; she refused. I had to wait until freshman year of college to truly indulge in the box. And that’s just what I did until one day I realized that all the food I ate was yellow-orange: mac and cheese, ramen and Rice a Roni. All the directions were the same too: boil, add margarine and sprinkle a flavoring packet. Everything tasted the same: salty chemicals.
The Mac and Cheese I prepare my kiddos resembles the boxed version in appearance alone. I just love that bright orange color, but in my version the color comes from butternut squash. Like I said, it tastes completely different. This is a rather sophisticated flavor profile, but my family loves it. If you want a more traditional version, simply leave out the squash and add an extra cup of milk, but I think the squash is yummy. It’s one of those sneaky ways to get kids to eat their veggies. This meal comes from pantry staples, so it’s one of my Go To Dinners when the day gets ahead of me. The sauce is quick and easy, so this recipe takes however long it takes for your pot to come to a boil and cook the pasta.
1 box elbow (or shell) pasta (you can choose whole wheat if you like)
2 T butter
1 T olive oil
3 T flour
2 c milk (whatever fat content you like)
1 bay leaf
dash of tobasco (optional)
1/4- 1/2 t white pepper
1 package of frozen pureed butternut squash, thawed
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
8 oz cheese, grated (sharp cheddar or a colby jack work nicely)
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once bubbly, add about a tablespoon of salt and your pasta. Cook according to the package directions, minus one minute. Before draining save a cup of the pasta water.
2. While water is coming to a boil, make your sauce in another rather large pot. Heat over a medium high flame. Melt butter and oil. Add flour and whisk to combine. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Add milk all at once and whisk vigorously to prevent lumps. Once you have a smooth consistency add bay leaf, tabasco, white pepper and nutmeg. Stir frequently as sauce thickens.
3. Once sauce has thickened (about 3 minutes), remove bay leaf, add cheese and stir. Add thawed squash and stir well. Season with sea salt. Taste and adjust spices to your pallet. Sometimes I add a bit of pumpkin pie spice. Turn off heat and wait for pasta.
4. When pasta is ready, drain and add it to the sauce. Stir to coat. If the sauce needs to loosen, add a bit of the reserved pasta water. Serve and enjoy!
* I frequently cook well before dinner time and have noticed that as it sits, the pasta absorbs the sauce. If that happens, add a bit of the pasta water right before serving.
* For a baby food version, omit the tabasco and overcook your pasta by 2 minutes. Cut into pieces if necessary. Do introduce tabasco to toddlers if you want them to develop a well-rounded pallet. The amount in this dish is not that much, so it’s a great introduction to heat.
* To make this recipe greener, you can roast your own squash. This does take more time and effort, although if you kept homemade purees in the freezer, it could still be a fast meal.
* You can add breadcrumbs and broil before serving if you like a crunchy crust. Or get creative and add caramelized onions or golden raisins or whatever else you like.
The Bottom Line
I thought that this homemade version of Mac and Cheese would be more expensive than the processed version, but it’s actually about the same if you take into account the quantity. It cost me $3.21 to make my version which was double or triple the size of Kraft’s which costs $1.40. Nutritionally my version is much stronger with dramatically less sodium, no trans fat, and a vegetable serving.
The taste difference is remarkable. The homemade version doesn’t taste like a meal cop-out. It’s quite satisfying and doesn’t take long to cook. To be fair, people who love the box version will have to adjust to these flavors. The boxed version has a distinctively processed taste to it. If I were weaning a child from the boxed version, I might add less squash and more sea salt in the beginning and allow their taste buds to adjust gradually.
It does take longer to make this as you can’t simply microwave it, but it’s less than 20 minutes and most of that time is just boiling water. With hands free, you can use those minutes to whip up a salad or slice some apples to go along side. Enjoy!