This butternut squash mac and cheese throws a curveball at the tongue, teasing the sweet button on taste buds that were prepared for savory.
I think the best part of cooking is seeing the impact of that first taste on someone else’s face, watching it light up and witnessing that budding smile. Particularly when you’ve pulled in an unexpected ingredient or two as is the case with this recipe, it’s as if you can see the wheels in your dining companion’s brain turning as they chew.
The bright squash puree is the golden ticket in this recipe that leads your dinner guests to wonder…
What’s that flavor I can’t quite put my finger on?
The unique addition of butternut squash puree partners with milk and mild shredded cheddar, known for its beautiful melting quality, in the sauce for this baked macaroni.
With the subtly sweet notes from the squash, a little heat and spice for contrast adds depth. Tingly cayenne pepper and pungent ground mustard do the trick in this dish.
Salty and sweet is one of my favorite flavor profiles, but instead of your typical crumbled bacon topper, which brings a bold bouquet of smoke, pancetta was selected for this recipe instead. It still has that intensely porky profile, but with a more mellow flavor that doesn’t overpower the sauce. And there’s no need to melt butter into your breadcrumbs when you’ve got rendered pork fat for your panko!
Panko breadcrumbs are already celebrated for being light, crispy, and airy, so you know this topping is going to be tasty.
To quickly recap all the magic we’ve poured into this mac, so far we’ve got a little sweet, a hint of salt, some savory, and a touch of crunch.
Quite a ridiculously delicious roundup if I do say so myself!
Choosing which type of pasta to use is up to personal preference, but some believe it can make or break a dish. Cavatappi is courageously curvy and has no problem cloaking itself in this silky sauce. It’s my carb of choice for this recipe – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be yours.
Feel free to grab another variety of short tubular pasta with ridges like fusilli, rotini, or gemelli.
No matter the noodle, I guarantee your guests will only need to take one bite of this fall-inspired comfort food casserole to realize it’s something special.
And if those smiles turn into happy tears, well, I’ll take full responsibility for that.Print
This deeply flavorful, fall-inspired pancetta mac and cheese calls on rich butternut squash and cheddar for a sweet and savory combo.
- 1 pound (16 ounces) cavatappi pasta
- 1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
- 1 1/8 cups (6 ounces) pancetta diced in 1/4-inch cubes
- 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1 1/2 cups butternut squash puree
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- 2 1/2 cups (10 ounces) shredded mild cheddar cheese
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh chives or parsley, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and spray a 9-by-13-inch ceramic baking pan or 3-quart casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the cavatappi, stirring occasionally until al dente, about 9-11 minutes. Drain the pasta, transfer to a large bowl, and toss with the oil to prevent sticking. Set the pot aside to use for making the sauce.
- While the pasta is cooking, place a large skillet on the stove over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until crispy and golden brown, about 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked pancetta to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.
- Place the breadcrumbs in a small bowl. Transfer 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pan to the bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.
- Return the empty pot used for cooking the pasta to the stove. Add the butternut squash puree and the milk. Whisk until combined over medium heat, and bring the sauce to a simmer. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat level as needed.
- Turn off the heat. Stir in the salt, black pepper, ground mustard, and cayenne pepper. Add the cheese about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring between additions to combine thoroughly and ensure that it melts. Season to taste with additional salt.
- Add the pasta and half of the pancetta, and stir until well-coated. Transfer to the prepared baking dish. Top with the panko breadcrumbs and remaining pancetta.
- Bake until golden-brown on top and bubbling around the edges, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for about 5 minutes before garnishing with the chives and serving.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 40 minutes
- Category: Mac and Cheese
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: Comfort Food
Keywords: mac and cheese, butternut squash, casserole, pancetta
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Gather, Measure, and Prep Ingredients
Prepare the butternut squash puree if you haven’t done so already. Measure out the 2 cups you need for this recipe.
Measure the pasta, salt, black pepper ground mustard, and cayenne pepper. Measure the panko breadcrumbs and place them in a small mixing bowl.
Measure the oil and milk.
Get out your box grater and grate the cheddar if you need to.
Dice the pancetta into 1/4-inch cubes if it wasn’t purchased this way. Though smoky pork has its place in a variety of recipes, be sure to purchase a variety that has not been smoked for this dish.
Step 2 – Cook the Pasta and Pancetta
Over high heat, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cavatappi and cook according to package directions until al dente, stirring occasionally. Mine cooked in about 9 minutes.
Drain the pasta in a colander. Transfer to a large bowl, and toss the noodles with the oil to prevent them from sticking. Set the pot aside for making the sauce in the next step.
Meanwhile, cook the pancetta. Set a paper-towel lined plate next to the stove. Add the pancetta cubes to a large skillet placed over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally until the cubes are crispy, for about 6 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked pancetta to the prepared plate to absorb some of the fat.
There will be a decent amount of rendered fat left in the pan. Measure out 1 tablespoon and add it to the bowl of panko breadcrumbs. Using a spoon or spatula, stir to coat the crumbs. Set aside.
Strain and reserve the remaining fat for another use like cooking veggies or making a vinaigrette, or discard it after it has solidified at room temperature.
Step 3 – Make the Sauce
Place the pot back on the stove over medium heat. Add the butternut squash puree and the milk, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Continue whisking occasionally until the sauce begins to bubble gently.
Stirring occasionally, simmer for 5 minutes, adjusting the heat level as needed. Turn off the heat, but keep the pot on the burner. Stir in the salt, pepper, ground mustard, and cayenne.
Fold in the cheese about 1/2 cup at a time, making sure to stir well between each addition to ensure that the previous portion has melted into the sauce.
If the sauce becomes so thick that you have a hard time stirring it, you can add some warmed milk to thin it out. Heat about 1/2 cup milk in the microwave using a heatproof bowl or in a small saucepot over low heat. Place the pot back on low heat and stir it into the sauce a tablespoon at a time, until smooth and pourable.
Season to taste with additional salt if necessary.
Step 4 – Mix the Pasta with the Sauce and Assemble
Take the pot off the stove and stir in the pasta and half of the pancetta. Make sure the pasta is thoroughly coated in the sauce.
Transfer the contents of the pot to the prepared baking dish.
Evenly sprinkle the top of the mac and cheese with the panko breadcrumbs and the remaining pancetta.
Step 5 – Bake, Rest, and Serve
Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until the breadcrumbs on top are a deep golden-brown color and the casserole is bubbling around the edges.
While the mac and cheese is baking, mince the chives for garnish.
If the top isn’t as golden as you’d like, you can broil the mac and cheese on high for about 30 seconds to 1 minute before taking it out of the oven. Just keep a close eye on it because the topping will burn easily.
Remove the pan from the oven and allow the casserole to rest for about 5 minutes so it sets. Garnish with the chives before serving.
Store any leftover mac and cheese in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 to 5 days or freeze for up to 3 months.
But What If I Can’t Find Butternut Squash?
The sweet flavor and smooth texture of the butternut squash puree is excellent in this recipe. But there’s good news! If you can’t find this variety at your local grocery store, there are a few other options in the winter squash category that will work nicely as a stand-in.
Canned pumpkin puree is obviously an easy swap, and it’s available year-round. Just be sure to select a variety that’s made with 100% pumpkin, not spiced pumpkin pie filling. You can also make your own pumpkin puree from scratch.
Acorn, delicata, or buttercup squash could also be roasted and whipped to perfection to use interchangeably in the puree.
Any of these will result in a silky, luxurious blend that adds substance and creaminess to the sauce and boosts the macaroni’s bright golden hue.
Do you like the oniony bite of freshly chopped chives on top or will you opt for parsley? Let us know what you’ll pair with this cheesy casserole in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.
Wondering what else you can do with winter squash? Try these recipes next that also showcase the seasonal fruit:
- Sweet and Spicy Vegan Spaghetti Squash Laksa Soup
- Maple-Roasted Acorn Squash
- Winter Squash Veggie Patties
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Chelsea Miller on November 10, 2014. Last updated on September 20, 2022.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”