When we were writing our cookbook, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, we made it our top priority to develop dishes that not only tasted great, but were also a vision to behold. We love our standard saucy macs, creamy gratins, and hearty casseroles, but the ones that really capture our hearts are the ones that initiate a captivated silence when they're carried out to the table. This is one of those dishes.
This baked macaroni and cheese recipe was made for your holiday table, and luckily, it takes very little actual work. It's easy: You scrape out a pumpkin, bake it, fill it with herbs, shredded cheese, cooked pasta and crumbled sausage, then finish in the oven to melt everything together. That's it.
If you like, you can even prepare most of the dish ahead of time. Shred the cheese, cook the pasta, and sauté the sausage the day before. A few hours before dinner, pre-bake your pumpkin, drop in the filling, and finish the dish in the oven while everyone sits around, playing with their gifts. It should only warrant 15 minutes worth of work. When you ready to dig into this gorgeous squash-bound gratin, you simply stick a big spoon in the middle and stir, scraping out swathes of tender pumpkin as you serve. The sweet sugar pumpkin mingles well with the cheese and sausage, with sweet, spicy, melty strings trailing after your serving spoon.
Here, we use Fontina and Gruyère, two old-school cheeses that can be found almost anywhere and are well-known for both their gorgeous flavors and melting capabilities. The cheeses are flexible, though, so you can use whatever you've got on hand. You can use all Fontina, all Gruyère, or even use all Cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack, Swiss, or any combination thereof. I've made this dish with half Jarlsberg and half Monterey Jack, and it was incredible. We even made a vegetarian version with aged Cheddar—whatever they had handy at Trader Joe's—along with Soyrizo and chopped, canned chipotle pepper. No matter what cheeses we use, this dish is still a show-stopper at the table.
- Yield:Serves 4 to 6
- Active time: 30 minutes
- Total time:2 1/2 hours
- 1 sugar pumpkin, or other sweet variety (not a carving pumpkin), about 5 pounds
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 pound mild Italian pork sausage
- 4 ounces elbow macaroni
- 5 ounces Fontina, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 2 ounces Gruyère, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
- 3 scallions, diced
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
- 1 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut a circle from the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle, the way you would cut open a pumpkin to make a jack-o’-lantern, and set aside. Scoop out the seeds and strings as best you can. Generously salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin, pop the top back on it, place it on a rimmed baking dish (since the pumpkin may leak or weep a bit), and bake for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. If the sausages are in their casings, remove the meat and discard the casings. Crumble the sausage meat into small chunks and cook until lightly browned. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Discard the drippings, or save for gravy or what have you.
Also while the pumpkin bakes, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process.
In a bowl, toss together the Fontina, Gruyère, sausage, pasta, scallions, and herbs. Once the pumpkin is done baking, take it out of the oven and fill it with the macaroni and cheese. Pour the cream over the filling. Place the top back on the pumpkin and bake for 1 hour, taking the top off for the last 15 minutes so the cheese on top of the filling can properly brown. If the top cream still seems a bit too wobbly and liquid, give it another 10 minutes in the oven. The cream may bubble over a bit, which is fine.
If the pumpkin splits while baking, as occasionally happens, be thankful you set it in a rimmed baking dish and continue to bake as normal.
Allow the pumpkin to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Be careful moving the dish, as the pumpkin may be fragile. You can serve this dish two ways: Cut it into sections and serve them, or just scoop out the insides with scrapings of the pumpkin flesh for each serving. Either way is just dandy. Salt and pepper to taste.
Wine pairings: white Rhône Valley blends, Viognier, oaky Chardonnay, champagne