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How to make healthier Mac 'n' cheese with butternut squash

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/15/2019 Molly Conway, MakeItGrateful.com
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Love macaroni and cheese but want to try a healthier twist? We've got the recipe for you.

Spiralized butternut squash is the perfect alternative to regular spaghetti. Not only is the texture incredible – far better than gummy chickpea or rice pasta – but it boasts an impressive nutritional profile. While this recipe isn't necessarily healthy (ahem, so much cheese), the squash noodles are loaded with Vitamin A  – almost five times your daily dose in just one cup – potassium, calcium, and Vitamin C. Even better, it’s also a good source of fiber and gluten-free. 

To top it off, this roasted butternut squash dish is draped in a sage infused gruyere cheese sauce. It's so good, no one will give normal spaghetti a second thought.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED: 

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 pounds (6 cups) butternut squash (cubed, spiralized or shaved)
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk 
  • 8 fresh sage leaves (not dried)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large shallots, sliced
  • 1/4 cup gluten-free baking mix
  • 2 cups shredded Gruyére cheese (about 1/2 pound)
  • 1 cup shredded asiago cheese (about 1/4 pound)
  • 1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (about 1/4 pound)
  • 2 teaspoons mustard
  • 1 cup crispy fried onions (optional)

Spiralized squash is best precut, but cubed or shaved work just as well. Roasting cubed squash usually takes about 20 minutes; if you shave the squash into long ribbons with a veggie peeler, it will probably take less time, so keep an eye on it. 

While the squash is roasting, start your cheese sauce by infusing the milk with sage, which will flavor the whole dish. (When I made this recently, my husband said, “You made it smell like Thanksgiving in here!” the moment he entered the kitchen.) 

Next, sauté up some thinly sliced shallots in butter. Add a bit of gluten-free baking mix before gently incorporating the sage-infused milk. (A traditional béchamel uses flour, of course, but it isn’t missed here.) The sauce will seem too lumpy or soupy as you go, but have faith and keep stirring. The Gruyére, asiago and Parmesan not only make for a great blend of flavors, but they melt together beautifully and offer Instagram-worthy cheese pulls. 

I know it’s the subject of much debate, but if you enjoy breadcrumbs on your baked butternut squash mac and cheese, saying no to gluten doesn’t have to mean nixing crunch in this dish. Here, I substitute fried onions (yup, the kind you put on green bean casserole) for the perfect savory, crispy bite. Feel free to skip them if it’s not your thing.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH “MAC” & CHEESE RECIPE CARD (Yield 6-8 servings)

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 pounds (6 cups) butternut squash (cubed, spiralized or shaved)
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk 
  • 8 fresh sage leaves (not dried)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 large shallots, sliced
  • 1/4 cup gluten-free baking mix
  • 2 cups shredded Gruyére cheese (about 1/2 pound)
  • 1 cup shredded asiago cheese (about 1/4 pound)
  • 1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (about 1/4 pound)
  • 2 teaspoons mustard
  • 1 cup crispy fried onions (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
  2. Dress squash with olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper.
  3. Arrange in single layer on 2 baking trays lined with parchment. Roast for 20 minutes or until soft.
  4. Meanwhile, warm milk in saucepan over medium low heat, just until bubbles appear at edges. Rub or twist sage leaves gently until fragrant, and add to warm milk. Remove from heat and let steep for about 20 minutes.
  5. Melt butter in large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Sauté shallots until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. 
  6. Pull sage leaves from milk, squeezing to remove any extra liquid in leaves. 
  7. Combine cheeses in large bowl, and toss to mix. 
  8. Add gluten-free baking mix to sautéed shallots. Whisk vigorously to incorporate. 
  9. Slowly dribble sage-infused milk into shallots while stirring over low heat. Mixture will alternate between lumpy and smooth as milk is incorporated but should end up smooth and creamy.
  10. Add 3 cups cheese blend a little at a time, stirring as cheese melts.
  11. Add mustard to cheese sauce.
  12. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  13. Coat squash with cheese sauce.
  14. Pour into 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
  15. Top with remaining cup of cheese blend and bake at 375 F for 40 minutes. If desired, top with fried onions 10 minutes before done. 
  16. Allow to rest and cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
  17. Notes
  18. These instructions assume the squash is cubed and the cheese shredded. If you're working from scratch, start with the squash, and work on the sauce while the squash is in the oven. Begin with infusing milk with sage, and shred the cheese while the milk steeps.
  19. A lasagna dish is the ideal baking pan for this recipe. 

Related video: Mac 'n' cheese pizza is a cheese lover's dream (Provided by INSIDER)

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