Since I’m still on my comfort food kick and totally inspired by the season, I decided to whip up another classic dish and give it an injection of autumn: baked macaroni and cheese with pumpkin and sage. Sure, mac and cheese is great as it is, but you’d be surprised how much better it can be with pumpkin, which adds the slightest hint of sweetness. Sage is my absolute favorite herb to cook with during the fall and it pairs perfectly with pumpkin, so I figured, why not throw it in this dish, too?
I also wanted to write up this particular recipe to teach you a thing or two about classic cooking techniques. I recently featured a recipe here that used the classic “mother sauce” Béchamel — milk thickened with a roux (equal parts fat and flour) to make a white sauce. This one uses the basics for Béchamel but adds cheese to it, thus making it a Mornay sauce (read: fancy name for cheese sauce). See? You can make easy, tasty food and learn some fancy cooking skills along the way.
While you can use just about any cheese you’d like for this recipe, I suggest a white, mild-flavored variety like white cheddar, Gouda or Gruyere, as it won’t overpower the pumpkin flavor or hide the bright yellow-orange hue imparted by the pumpkin puree. And while this mac and cheese doesn’t need to be baked after the creamy sauce is cooked, popping it in the oven gives it a firmer texture and a crispy exterior.
Baked Pumpkin and Sage Mac and Cheese
Makes 8-10 servings
1 pound package dry pasta, any shape that will hold sauce well (penne, orecchiette, shells, etc.)
4 tablespoons butter
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
4 tablespoons flour
3 or more cups whole milk
1 cup or more canned pumpkin purée (not pie filling)
1 1/2 cups grated white cheddar (I used Kerrygold Irish Cheddar)
Large pinch of ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup Panko (or regular, unseasoned) bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and set aside.
Heat a medium pot or large sauté pan over medium-low heat and melt the butter. Add the sage after the butter has melted and let it cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant and starting to get crispy.
To make the roux, whisk in the flour, making sure to whisk out all lumps, and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally (making sure the roux doesn’t brown). To take it to Béchamel stage, whisk in the milk, a cup at a time, whisking out all roux lumps. Raise the heat to medium and let the Béchamel simmer until it thickens to cream sauce consistency (thick enough to coat the back of a spoon), about 3-5 minutes. Whisk in the pumpkin completely. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cheese and nutmeg (it’s now a Mornay sauce). Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the sauce is too thick, whisk in more milk; if you’d like a more distinct pumpkin flavor, add more pumpkin.
Put the cooked pasta in a large bowl and pour the sauce on top, mixing together completely. Pour macaroni and cheese into a large baking dish that has been greased with butter or pan spray. Bake for 15 minutes or until bubbly. Top with bread crumbs and bake for another few minutes to let the crumbs get crispy; alternately, turn on the broiler and it will take less time to achieve a crispy topping, but be sure to watch it so it doesn’t burn.
Let cool for a few minutes before serving.