Well, a belated Happy New Year to all! Annalena did in fact give you all a recipe earlier this new year, but she's been in hibernation mode, thinking through many things, with few conclusions as of now.
Have you made resolutions for the year? Annalena thinks of them as "goals" rather than resolutions, for many reasons. Her kitchen goals are (i) to waste less food (ii) to use more vegetable protein as compared to animal (iii) to get vegetables into dishes wherever she can and (iv) in February, she will be doing a "no added sugar" fast. She will give you more details on that as the time approaches. She is excited about it.
Comfort food: it's what we crave this time of year. And given the political situation, we will be craving it more. But there is a simple fact about what most of us consider "comfort food" ragazzi: it takes time to make. Think about your comfort food favorites. They are probably all slow cooked, long time in the oven or on the stovetop dishes. Comfort can't be rushed. So if you are making the comfort dish for yourself, make some to share. It can be therapeutic. And if someone tries to comfort you, don't look a gift horse in the mouth.
"Mac and cheese." Yes, that's one of them, isn't it? For sure, you can buy boxed products that are disgusting and will not comfort you. OR, you can make up your mind to make it. It's not that hard, and there are many recipes out there. The one Annalena is focusing on today, she found on the blog Leitesculinaria, an excellent blog, which you should consult. But as she always does, Annalena went through the recipe, and changed it. She will tell you how she changed it as we proceed, and she urges you to consider changing it too.
Pumpkin. Something about the word warms us, doesn't it? Ultimately, pumpkin is just a big winter squash. Or a small one. Indeed, in cooking pumpkin, Annalena suggests you stick to smaller ones. The larger the pumpkin, the more liquid in it, and working with it can be really tricky and sometimes dangerous, because squash are filled with sugar, and hot sugar will burn the Beejeezus out of you. When Annalena cooks pumpkin, she never uses one more than 2-3 pounds. For this recipe, she used two small sugar pumpkins the first time. And since you can substitute winter squashes freely, she used a butternut squash the second time around.
If you're going to cook a winter squash, cut it in half lengthwise, put the cut sides down on a piece of parchment, and bake at 400 until the thing is so soft that it yields when you press it:
Remember that Annalena said this was hot? It is. So wait until it cools down, and scoop out that wonderful orange flesh:
Examine the pulp critically. If it seems very stringy (a good possibility with pumpkin, not so much with butternut squash), then puree it in the food processor. You're going to want 2 cups, and the extra freezes well.
Of course, you could avoid all of this and buy a 1 lb can of pumpkin (NOT pie filling. Just pumpkin. It's probably butternut squash, because the law allows them to be called the same, but just get a can. You know what they look like.).
At this point, you have to start assembling your ingredients and making choices. The recipe Annalena consulted called for bacon, onions, heavy cream. She deleted the bacon, added onions (one time) and changed the heavy cream to milk. You will not find instructions for the bacon variation (sounds like a Bach piece, doesn't it: "the Bacon variations". Or maybe a chess move), but you will for the onion. Leave it out if you see fit.
Ok, so now we're going to cook. If you decide to use onion, get a large one, cut it in half lengthwise, and then cut it into half moons. Get those into 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, and cook them slowly. About 20 minutes. At the end, add three cloves of finely chopped garlic. You can chop it while the onions are cooking. Cook the garlic until it's fragrant. Then push all the onion and garlic mix into a bowl. Add another tablespoon of butter, and add a half cup of "Panko" breadcrumbs (did you know that "panko" is Japanese for "little bread" - or bread crumbs. See what you learn?). Just toss all of this together for 1-2 minutes, and then put that in a separate bowl.
Ok, now we're going to start cooking. Yes, more butter: two more tablespoons, into that big pan you've been using, together with 1/4 cup of flour. You want to just stir that together, and then start adding 3.5 cups of dairy. Annalena used all milk. You can combine milk and cream, or use all cream, or use half and half, but PLEASE do not use skim milk. Seriously, ragazzi, if you're using skimmed milk to make mac and cheese, make something else. NO ONE has ever felt comforted by skim milk.
Keep stirring this milk until it begins to thicken:
Now add two cups of grated cheese. What kind? Cheddar is traditional, though far from necessary. Annalena used fontina and gruyere the first time, cheddar and an alpine swiss plus gouda the second time. 8 ounces of cheese will give you a substantial two cups:
Do not worry if the cheese is not grated evenly, my sparrows. You're going to melt it into the milk mixture like so:
Now, you are going to add the two cups of pumpkin or squash, the onions, some sage leaves if you like, some thyme leaves, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. IF you are trying to add some veggies, this is not a bad time to add about a cup or more of cooked, chopped broccoli , or spinach, or peas, or "something green." If you use spinach, or some other leaf green, please squeeze the moisture out. You can pour all of this into a buttered (yes, it's there again) 9x13 inch glass or ceramic pan.
You may be tempted to eat this now, and honestly, Annalena would not blame you. But you're making MAC and cheese, ragazzi, not cheese sauce. So, now we need a pound or so of pasta Shape is important here, but not as much as some would have it. Classically, one uses a shape like a wagon wheel, an elbow, fusilli, etc, to hold onto the rich sauce. You can use spaghetti if you like, bambini. You can use whatever you like. Annalena used shells of different sizes, and also :
Do you know what strozzapreti means? It means "priest stranglers." The shape gets its name, allegedly, because the priests were so greedy when they ate this pasta, they choked on it.
Now, no one knows a greedy religious figure do they? Annalena thought not, so we'll move on.
Whatever pasta you are going to use, cook it the way you normally would, BUT cook it for 2-3 minutes LESS. Remember, it's going into the oven.
When the pasta is just at the point Annalena referred to, drain it, and put it into the 9x13 with the sauce, and stir it all together:
Now grate another half cup of your favorite cheese (Annalena almost wrote half pound. That sounds good too), and put that over the pasta, together with the panko you made up above:
Put that in the oven, preheated, at 350 for 30 minutes. You will get something like:
If you would like a browner, crispier topping, resort to your broiler for a few minutes, but keep an eye on things.
And there you have it! Leave out the onions if you don't want the work, buy a can of pumpkin or squash if you don't feel like making the pulp yourself. Leave out the veggies. Add the bacon. Use cream. But for heaven's sake, SHARE THE RESULT OF YOUR LABOR!
Seriously, ragazzi, Annalena cries out to you: the next four years will be tough. And the first few months will be the toughest. We will need each other. And if sharing food brings us all together, well, let's share our food. Remember, there's an old story about a group of 12 men doing that, but Annalena doesn't have to re-tell that story. Just remember the wonderful lines of MFK Fisher "There is more than a communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk." Break some bread, drink some wine.