Cooking the final Sunday meal at our old apartment was bittersweet. As I rooted about for wooden spoons and pastry brushes amongst the moving detritus, teetering stacks of boxes, bulging canvas bags, uprooted dustballs and half-empty cabinets and utensil drawers that comprise our current living space, how could it not be?
We started our marriage almost four years ago in a teeny starter apartment in Brooklyn Heights: a quirky quasi first floor apartment (it’s partially sunken below ground level, given the space a kind of hang-dog, slouchy air) that is part of a well-loved, slightly frayed one-family brownstone owned by and lived in by our landlords and their various grown children and nieces.
Starting our own little tribe in a 19th century ramshackle home on another tribe’s turf was equal parts charming / sweet and maddening / suffocating — I always felt like a guest in our place, too worried about impeding their modus operandi with unwanted noises, cooking smells, rowdy dinner guests or my dog’s zany hijinks to really ever take command of my own M.O.
At the same time, we started our marriage there! Our first apartment — with its little fireplace, its crumbling brick walls, its double oven — harbored our first years together, years that welded us together. I’ve never been closer to another human being in my life; as an only child, I often wondered how much “true” personal intimacy I could stand. Quite a bit, as it turns out.
For our last supper, I failed to consult Stephen on the menu. I’ve decided that, like many of my wonderful clients in the event planning world, he doesn’t always know what he wants until he has it. My assignment is to divine his unvoiced, unacknowledged desires and deliver them to his gullet.
Often, when I go rogue in the kitchen, I have to operate under a cloak of silence and secrecy; to push my agenda, I use time-honored methods of double-speak and insidious deception of the kind that I imagine were quite handy in Soviet-era Russia.
Whenever I prepare items that feature winter squash, beets, zucchini, fennel, jicama, lettuce of any kind, carrots, parsnips, brussel sprouts, garlic, cayenne pepper, black pepper, low-fat dairy of any kind, whole grains of any kind, agave or dried legumes I must pretend that the dish is being made exclusively for my own consumption, until D-Day when I scream “Dinner’s ready!” and hope for the best.
Butternut squash macaroni and cheese was no different — but when he saw the gorgeous platter of orange, creamy noodles topped with crunchy brown butter breadcrumbs, he melted faster than a scoop of vanilla ice cream rolling down the Coney Island boardwalk on the Fourth of July.
Recipe for Butternut Mac and Cheese:
Makes 8 big servings and keeps very well
- 1/2 cup of browned, unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons at room temperature
- 2 medium butternut squashes (about 3 pounds total), halved lengthwise and seeded
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 pounds macaroni noodles
- 2 cups 2% milk
- Dash nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cups Pecorino Romano
- 1/4 cup 2% Greek yogurt
- 3/4 cup whole fat ricotta cheese
- 1 1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a pastry brush, butter a large casserole dish (mine is about 10 x 14 inches) with one tablespoon of the room temperature butter and set aside.
- Drizzle prepared squash on all sides with olive oil. Using a pastry brush, rub the cut sides with one tablespoon of room temperature butter. Salt and pepper generously and place, cut side down in a large baking dish. (Another glass casserole dish will work well — the squash releases liquid that mixes with the melted butter and oil, creating a quick-fast confit situation one would not want to hamper with parchment paper or the like).
- Bake squashes until they are quite soft, about the consistency of custard; check every few minutes after 30 minutes by piercing with a fork. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
- Using a metal spoon, scoop out the flesh of the squashes and place in a blender or food processor. (Discard the skins). Salt and pepper generously, add a dash of nutmeg, half of the milk and puree. Add the rest of the milk and puree again, taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside. (This can be done up to 24 hours in advance).
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and bring back to boil. Cook until al dente. Drain and add to bowl with the squash puree, along with Pecorino and yogurt. Stir until well-combined. Add half of the ricotta and mix it gently, allowing chunks of the ricotta to remain whole. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Carefully pour into prepared baking vessel. Using a teaspoon, dot the top of the pasta with the remaining ricotta. Put freshly made breadcrumbs (lightly toast whole wheat bread and gently tear into pea-sized bits) in a bowl, add salt and pepper and mix in the browned butter. Sprinkle the brown butter bread crumbs evenly over the top of the pasta. Bake until golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.
Basic nutritional information: 691 calories per serving; 19 grams of fat per serving; good source of protein, calcium, Vitamins A, E, C, B6. Cholesterol bomb.
Cost breakdown: About $15.00 (not counting pantry staples like bread and olive oil), or $1.87 per serving.
The verdict: First: “Salt please!” Even though I salted it quite aggressively, and despite Pecorino’s relatively high sodium content, this is a dish that requires handfuls of salt (noodles, squash, ricotta, milk and yogurt are all relatively blank canvases — without the garlic and onions that I would normally add to a dish like this, it needs a serious flavor infusion). Then: “Wow. This is really good. I mean. Really. Good.” Finally: “I’m going back for seconds. Wait. I know you put something gross in this. What was it again? … Butternut squash?! Ew! Oh well. At least I can’t taste it.”
Make it again? Most definitely. I love that I could sneak some veg in there without alarming the censors.
In the future: I think I would add a handful of chopped fresh herbs like basil or sage to pump up the flavor factor without contributing to Stephen’s salt addiction. If I were feeling fancy, I’d sub mascarpone cheese for the yogurt; if I were feeling indulgent, I’d sub cream for half of the milk; if I were feeling finicky, I’d drizzle the whole shebang with white truffle oil.