Well, well, holidays, winter, and the end of 2015 are all hangin’ out together again. This dish is my grand finale of recipes before we kick carbs to the curb on 01/01/16. It offers the best of good and evil in all the right ways. It’s not healthy enough to be called healthy but it’s health-ier than traditional baked mac and cheese. So, it’s my Half-Healthy Butternut Squash Baked Mac and Cheese recipe.
Half-Healthy Butternut Squash Baked Mac and Cheese
Some years ago, my amazing, older brother, Kevin, set the tone for the perfect baked mac and cheese. He had his ratios down to a science…and made the ingredients all gather in harmony without being too cheesy, liquid-y, or dry. How’d he do it?!?!
That science is what makes or breaks the impressionable mac and cheeses of the world. He had it down.
So, over the years, I’ve tried to reverse engineer Kev’s process…and have failed miserably. It’s because I’m always trying to reduce fat, replace it with something else, and feel less-guilt…and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his goal with his dish. My method usually works with things that aren’t Baked Mac and Cheese.
Tall order, huh?! So, I gave up on achieving results that wow’d the crowd like Kev’s. Then, on Thanksgiving, something magical happened…
Butternut squash, yo!
I was actually aiming to get into the holiday season with some serious gluttony that paints on the carbs and fat. This recipe is definitely not without those, but it turned out to be Half-Healthy Butternut Squash Baked Mac and Cheese.
What makes it half-healthy anyway? I started my sauce base with butternut squash, and it gave it a creamy boost before adding any fat. So, the squash replaced a good portion of cream and cheese, but don’t worry, we still added those lovelies. And it was drinkable-good!
The al dente trick: I highly recommend you undercook the noodles juuuust enough so they’ll finish cooking in the final bake.
The sauce-to-noodle ratio: When I combined the noodles and sauce in the test kitchen phase, I was actually skeptical about how liquid-y it appeared. But liquid has two destinations; 1) it gets absorbed by the noodles, and 2) evaporation. In this recipe, I had them both in my corner and nailed the proper consistency…finally!
About those toppings: They are the deal-sealer of this dish. We’re talking crispy panko bread crumbs, finely chopped walnuts, and butter-fried sage leaves. Wait. Whaaaaat?! How do you make those?
Here’s how to make Butter Fried Sage Leaves:
2 Tbsp Butter
8-12 Sage Leaves
- In a skillet on medium heat, add BUTTER and heat until it releases a nutty fragrance (2-3 minutes).
- Add SAGE LEAVES and sauté about 1 minute, enough to crisp but not burn; remove leaves and place on a paper towel.
Now, back to my brother (and best friend of many years). I haven’t blogged about this, but very sadly, he lost his life 6 years ago. The details of our loss aren’t as important as what our family members have personally, and collectively, learned from the experience of loving and losing someone very close.
We’ve grown closer and more transparent with each other. We still laugh and cry together about our memories with him. My amazing younger brother and I seem to live vicariously through Kev by setting awesome goals and achieving them through hard work and determination. My parents have amazed me with their strength, which has, in turn, made me stronger.
I’ve always known that life happens in a flash, but never really understood how time seems to stop during periods of intense grief. And somehow, we manage to get through it. And then we realize, we really do have enough hours in the day, if we spend them intentionally.
Sigh. Who knew a baked mac and cheese recipe would inspire this direction. But, my brother would have loved the simplicity, and seriousness, of my own mac and cheese challenge, but even more, that I’m pursuing my dream to help others achieve cooking confidence and wellness with real food. He is dearly, deeply missed, but continues to inspire me, and my family members, as much as he ever did.
That said, cheers to looking back and holding memories tight, moving forward, and making the important things happen today, like having mucho mucho love in our hearts. Happiest holidays to you and yours!
Grab my other holiday recipes!
Make my No Cook Cranberry Pomegranate Relish to serve atop warm, brie cheese with bread or crackers. And for the perfect side salad, consider Arugula Sweet Potato Salad or Brussels Sprout Slaw. Both are made with healthy ingredients that burst with holiday flavor. For a really traditional recipe that’s uniquely healthy, try my I Can’t Believe Its’ Vegan! Green Bean Casserole. This one is crazy good!
About my recipes: MORE plant, LESS animal...that's my jam.