I recently had a disastrous experience at a local SF barbecue spot, that shall not be named for the sake of their reputation. I was craving mac and cheese, but when I received my order, the mac and cheese were cold, the cheese had split, and the flavor was just off. It was an udder mac and cheese-catastrophe… So I started hunting for how to make the best mac and cheese at home.
For many recipes like this, I turn to my trusty The Food Lab cookbook by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. This book has the most thoroughly-tested and explained recipes. Not only do I get a great recipe, but I also get a scientific explanation for why the recipe is why it is.
In The Food Lab, Lopez-Alt explains why American cheese should be used to get that perfect, creamy, mac and cheese texture. While I respect the recipe (and explanation about a low melting point), I am very anti-American cheese on a personal level, so I looked for another idea where I could avoid that ingredient.
However, I did “borrow” his method of soaking noodles in cold water instead of parboiling. Anything that saves me from cleaning an extra pan!
Next, I looked at Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen. This cookbook has a unique perspective from Chef Edward Lee, who was raised by Korean immigrants in Brooklyn and then moved to Louisville, Kentucky. His recipes combine Korean roots with a Southern twist. Think a master remoulade with miso or kimchi, ham pho, bacon braised rice, and bourbon-ginger glazed carrots. He also has a recipe for mac and cheese with pork cracklings and black sesame seeds.
I didn’t want to use pork cracklings, and I am all out of black sesame seeds. However, I was intrigued by his use of roast squash in the cheese sauce. I used Chef Lee’s recipe with a few tweaks, and oh my gourd, it was pasta-ble to make grate mac and cheese at home!
1 small butternut squash (~1 lb)
12 oz of shell noodles
3 oz sharp cheddar
3 oz gouda
3 oz parmesan
1 cup of milk
1 cup of chicken stock, plus more if needed
3 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper
1-2 tbsp of red pepper flakes (to taste)
½ cup of panko bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cut butternut squash in half vertically, scoop out seeds, and put face down on a baking sheet. Add ¼ cup of water to the baking sheet and put the sheet in the oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes until squash is tender. Remove from the oven and let cool.
Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F.
While the squash is cooking, fill a large bowl with cold water and add the dried pasta. Let pasta soak in the water for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, drain the water, and put the pasta back into the bowl. *This method is in The Food Lab for baked pasta dishes.
Butter a 9 x 12-inch baking dish.
Once the squash is cool, scoop it out of the skin and put it into a blender. Add the cheese, milk, stock, butter, and nutmeg. Blend until the mixture forms a smooth sauce. Add more stock if needed to thin out.
Add the sauce to the bowl with the pasta. Mix thoroughly. Pour everything into the baking dish.
Sprinkle top with the panko crumbs.
Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove cover and bake for another 25 minutes until panko crumbs are toasty. Serve immediately.