Lately, I’ve been cooking as a way to deal with stress. I mean, I’ve been cooking more for the past couple of weeks because I’m in love with my new kitchen, obviously. But it’s also a brilliant way of forcing myself to do something other than a) work, or b) worry about work.

You can’t really multi-task while cooking. You can listen to a podcast or something, but you can’t really pause to send emails or do paperwork, unless you want to smear butter or flour or meat juice all over your laptop and important documents. Pretty much the only other activity that has this effect is going to the movies, where I turn off my phone (because I’m not a monster). But who has time for movies? Apparently not me (although I did see Interstellar and Gone Girl so I guess I’m not at zero for “movies people are on about right now”).

Anyway, this isn’t about how I wish I had time to see Whiplash and Birdman (maybe next week, though). This is about how I’ve been feeling really  overwhelmed with my workload lately, and I haven’t been making time to do the things that usually de-stress me, like going to the gym, or seeing friends, or going to the movies.

But no matter how busy I am, I have to eat, right? And I can’t afford to eat out every day (besides, that would be depressing), right? So! Cooking! You gotta do it anyway, might as well make it fun.

Anyway, I had a craving for mac & cheese the other day so I made up a recipe, which turned out great. For me, 30% of the joy of cooking is in the cooking itself (I like to chop, stir and mash), 30% is in the eating (duh), and 40% is in the creativity of inventing a recipe. I love reading recipes, and deciding that none of them will be as good as the one I can make up myself.

I like to sneak vegetables into everything I cook (even desserts sometimes – see: beet cakes, avocado chocolate mousses) so I decided to try something I’ve seen in other recipes but never tested before: using puréed squash to add creamy texture without adding actual cream. Not that I have anything against cream, mind you.

start with the basics, like onions and bacon

start with the basics, like onions and bacon

I also have a sneaking suspicion that caramelized onions make everything better, so I started with those. And bacon. I caramelized, I fried, and I set them both aside. Then I peeled and chopped the squash and boiled it until it was soft.

Then I made a béchamel sauce, the base without which, I am terribly sorry to tell you, any mac & cheese is subpar. Béchamel is just basic “white sauce” and it’s easy to make, so don’t be intimidated by the fancy French name. Melt some butter, add an equal amount of flour into it to make a roux, and before it gets too dark, slowly add milk. I used about two tablespoons of butter and flour, and two cups of milk. I also added a generous pinch of nutmeg. I’m pretty sure that’s how my mom does it. Anyway, it’s great.

roux - the mortar with which the bricks of your cooking pyramid are bound, y'know?

roux – the mortar with which the bricks of your cooking pyramid are bound, y’know?

Once the béchamel was done, I added the cooked squash and mashed it with a potato masher. Then I added about three cups of shredded cheese. Use whatever blend you like. In my case, it was 50% old cheddar, 25% pecorino romano and 25% smoked gouda (adds A+ smoked flavour). I’ll also note something obvious: this recipe could be made with way, way, way less cheese (a small amount of a particularly sharp-flavoured cheese would be adequate to give it zing and gooeyness), if you want to make an even “healthier” version. My goal was not to make it some kind of diet dish, only to inject a little bit of healthy veg without spoiling or changing the classic flavour.

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the béchamel and squash mix should resemble a thick soup

I’m bad at measuring pasta so I took the casserole dish I was planning to bake it in, filled about 1/3 of it with dry pasta and boiled that amount, because I figured it would grow in volume to approximately double its size, which, when combined with the sauce, would roughly fill the dish. Makes sense, right? Worked perfectly.

An aside: while I cooked, I listened to some old episodes of Canadaland. I’ve been finding podcasts very soothing lately, because they take my mind off my constantly racing thoughts (my mind is a hamster wheel of ‘to do lists’, basically). Colin’s a comedy podcast listener, but I’m all newsy and factsy, so it’s a loop of This American Life, Canadaland, Planet Money, Freakonomics, Stuff You Should Know and Radiolab (plus Serial, obviously, although I am not ready for it to be over). If you have any other podcasts to recommend along those lines, please send them my way! I am always looking for new ones.

I used whatever this pasta is called, because macaroni is kind of boring

I used whatever this pasta is called, because macaroni is kind of boring

Aaaaanyway, I boiled the pasta to very-al-dente, drained it and added the previously-set-aside bacon and caramelized onions, then combined it with the squash’n’cheese mixture. Then I poured it all into the casserole dish. Final touch: more cheese and some breadcrumbs on top.

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I baked it for about 20 minutes then broiled it for another 3-4 (I very nearly burned it – beware your broilers, people, it only takes a split second to go from perfectly golden brown to black). The stove we have at the new place is very fancy (I googled the brand, and I’m pretty sure it’s this one) and I’m still getting used to it. Or maybe I’m just getting used to having an oven that works the way it’s supposed to, unlike our old one. I don’t have to kneel next to it and blow on the pilot light to ignite it, how novel!

To recap:

ready for a sprinkling of cheese and breadcrumbs

ready for a sprinkling of cheese and breadcrumbs

topped and ready for the oven

topped and ready for the oven

aaand done!

aaand done!

Ingredients

  • 2 small onions, chopped
  • 1 small butternut squash
  • 4-6 slices of bacon
  • macaroni or other pasta of your choice (I think I used 3-4 cups?)
  • 2 cups of cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 cup of smoked gouda, grated
  • 1 cup of pecorino romano, grated
  • 2 tablespoons each of butter & flour, pinch of nutmeg & 2 cups of milk (for béchamel sauce)
  • breadcrumbs (to add crunch!)

Instructions

  • Sautée onions and fry bacon, then set aside
  • Peel & chop butternut squash, boil till completely soft, then set aside
  • Grate all the cheese, then set aside
  • Make the béchamel sauce (go here for instructions) and don’t forget to add a pinch of nutmeg
  • Add cooked squash to béchamel sauce and mash/purée
  • Add 3/4 of your grated cheese to squash & sauce mixture
  • Cook pasta until it’s al dente (but not as done as you’d normally like)
  • Add in the bacon and caramelized onions
  • Mix with cheesy squash sauce
  • Pour into casserole dish, cover with the cheese you kept aside & add sprinkling of breadcrumbs
  • Bake in 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes, until it’s bubbling & browned on top

The finished product: just what the doctor ordered! Served with a simple lettuce / arugula / mushroom salad and a dash of hot sauce. Just as good when reheated the next day, and I’d definitely make it again. Maybe with more smoked cheese and a dash of smoked paprika next time, but either way I’m never going back to mac & cheese that doesn’t have squash in it. You really couldn’t taste the squash because the cheeses overpowered its mild flavour, but it added a level of creaminess to the whole dish so that it was never runny but also never dry (especially at the ‘leftovers’ phase – very important). Plus, eating a plate of cheesy pasta and getting a serving of vegetables feels nice. Life hack! This cream sauce is actually a nutritious gourd!

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I can’t believe it’s squash!