'Secret Ingredient' Mac and Cheese

This is one of those recipes that dietitians dream of.

A 'Holy Grail' of recipes, where healthy ingredients come together in perfect harmony to create a genuinely tasty and satisfying dish. Everybody wins!
Traditional mac and cheese recipes usually call for generous amounts of butter, cream (or whole milk) and of course, cheese! While okay on occasion, you may not want to include this comfort food in your family's regular meal rotation.

Don’t worry, this recipe still has plenty of cheese, but it’s definitely lightened up in terms of fat and calories. It also packs a serious nutrient punch with the addition of the 'secret ingredient', which also helps to thicken the sauce and give it a lovely bright orange colour.
When I asked my boyfriend to guess the ‘secret ingredient’ in this recipe, I heard everything from yellow mustard to hemp hearts. He had no idea that it was actually pureed squash that made this dish so delish! Even after I let him in on the secret, his taste buds couldn't detect the squash flavour, and he still went back for a second helping.

Makes 8 Servings (2 cups each)
Cooking spray
One 16-ounce (454g) box elbow macaroni
2 ½ cups (600g) frozen winter squash (such as butternut squash), cubed or pureed*
2 cups low-fat milk
2 cups grated full-flavoured cheese (Such as sharp cheddar or monterey jack)
1/2 cup low fat cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons plain or panko dried bread crumbs
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon olive oil
*Note: I have only tried this recipe using frozen squash (cubed or pureed), found in the freezer section of most grocery stores. If squash is in season, I think fresh cooked squash, pureed in the sauce with an immersion blender (as shown in this recipe) would work well.

  • Preheat the oven to 375°F. Coat a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or casserole dish with cooking spray.
  • Cook the macaroni to ‘al dente’, according to the package directions. Drain and transfer to the prepared baking dish.
  • Meanwhile, place the frozen squash and milk in a large saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally.
  • If using pureed squash, break up the squash with a spoon until it is defrosted. If using cubed squash (or a combination, as pictured above), cook until the squash is defrosted, then use an immersion blender to blend the sauce until smooth.

  • Turn the heat up to medium and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the shredded cheese, cottage cheese or ricotta, salt, mustard, and cayenne. If using cottage cheese, give the mixture one more blend with the immersion blender to break up any lumps.
  • Pour this mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine.

  • Combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese.
  • Bake until the cheeses are bubbling around the edges, about 20 minutes, then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.

I must admit, I still like mine served with a side of ketchup (old habits die hard!).

This recipe can be prepared a day ahead, just wait to add the breadcrumb topping until just before it goes in the oven. If the casserole is cold from the fridge, you will need to bake it a bit longer, about 30 minutes total to get it good and hot.
Original Recipe adapted from 'The Food You Crave' cookbook by Ellie Krieger. Original recipe and nutrition info also available at http://www.elliekrieger.com/macaroni-and-four-cheeses#.VcS8tXFViko
Natalee, RD