Thanksgiving recipes: How to cook the best ravioli with butternut squash and classic mac and cheese

It's no wonder the holidays and macaroni and cheese go together so well: They're both warm, comforting and filled with more than their share of cheesy moments.

With Thanksgiving but a week away, we've enlisted cheese expert Laura Werlin to show you the whey to macaroni mastery.

Laura Werlin is the James Beard award-winning cookbook author of The All American Cheese and Wine Book. Her sixth book, Mac & Cheese, Please!, will be released December 4. You can find her on Twitter as @cheezelady if that tells you anything about her fervor for fromage.

Five Tips to a (Mac &) Cheesy Thanksgiving: Laura Werlin

1. Return of the Mac

Nearly everyone has a childhood memory of macaroni and cheese. The dish is a perennial favorite regardless of age, and is definitely the ultimate comfort food for winter.

I personally like the sweetness that onions add but, if you prefer, you can simply leave them out of this classic recipe. The dish will likely make it into your regular repertoire either way! Once you have a classic recipe, the possibilities are endless for what you can add in - bacon or arugula anyone?

Classic Mac & Cheese

(Serves 6)

Ingredients

1 Tbsp, plus 1 tsp kosher salt

8 oz small elbow macaroni

5 Tbsp salted butter, plus more for baking dish

2 cups coarse, fresh breadcrumbs (preferably homemade)

2 oz Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup)

3/4 cup finely diced yellow onion (about 1/2 medium onion)

2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk

1 cup heavy cream

6 oz medium or aged cheddar cheese, preferably orange, coarsely grated (about 2 cups)

6 oz Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated (about 2 cups)

1/2 tsp mustard powder

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1/8 tsp ground or freshly grated nutmeg

Cooking Directions

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter an 8-inch square (1 1/2-quart) baking dish or pan (or six 8-ounce ramekins). Set aside.

Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full with water and add 1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, about 4 minutes. Drain, and reserve the pot.

While the pasta is cooking, in a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Turn off the heat and add the breadcrumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Stir until mixed well. Set aside.

Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the flour and stir constantly until the onion is coated with the flour, 30 to 45 seconds. Continue stirring for about 2 minutes more, or until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty.

Slowly whisk in the milk, cream and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and cook until the mixture is just beginning to thicken and bubble around the edges, about 5 to 7 minutes. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it's soupy, continue cooking until it thickens. Add 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar, the Gruyère, mustard powder, cayenne and nutmeg and stir until the cheeses have melted and the sauce is smooth but not too runny. Again, it should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it's soupy, continue cooking, stirring constantly, until it thickens.

Add the pasta and stir to combine. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheddar and top with the breadcrumb mixture.

Place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

2. I'm melting!

Because mac & cheese is all about melted goodness, it's essential to use cheeses that submit to their full glory when exposed to heat. In other words, USE GOOD MELTERS.

For some of the best melting cheeses, head for the hills - preferably the Swiss Alps! It's there where you'll find the unparalleled Gruyère (one of the best-tasting melting cheeses in the world), Emmentaler (the original "Swiss" cheese) and Appenzeller, among others. Hop over those hills into France's Jura region and grab some Comté for an equally memorable melting cheese experience.

And from the rolling hills of Wisconsin, Pleasant Ridge Reserve and just about any Wisconsin cheddar will make any mac & cheese sing, as will the cheeses from the farms and forests in Vermont all the way to the seaside farms in California, Oregon and Washington. So, now that you know the fundamentals, it's time to put them into practice.

3. Thanksgiving mac attack

Ravioli with butternut squash, brown butter and sage has become a classic fall pasta combination in many upscale restaurants. Why not take it down-home and fold that delectable flavor combination into mac & cheese? This recipe is a true winner and a dish that your friends and family will love you for, whether you serve it at Thanksgiving dinner or even in spring or summer.

Butternut Squash, Gruyère and Brown Butter Mac & Cheese

(Serves 6)

Ingredients

1 Tbsp, plus 1/2 tsp kosher salt

8 oz mini farfalle pasta (or you can use small elbow macaroni)

5 Tbsp salted butter

2 cups coarse, fresh breadcrumbs (preferably homemade)

4 oz pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese, finely grated (about 2 cups)

1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh sage leaves, plus 12 whole leaves

1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 1/2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

12 oz Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated (about 4 cups)

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Cooking Directions

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter an 8-inch square (1 1/2-quart) baking dish or pan (or six 8-ounce ramekins). Set aside.

Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full with water and add 1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain, and reserve the pot.

In a medium skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Turn off the heat and add the breadcrumbs and 1 cup of the pecorino. Stir to combine. Transfer to a small bowl and wipe out but do not wash the skillet.

Line a small plate with paper towels. Using the same skillet, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat and cook just until it's starting to brown. Add the whole sage leaves and cook until the leaves are crisp and just beginning to darken, about 45 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat. Using tongs, transfer the leaves to the paper towel-lined plate and reserve both the leaves and the butter.

Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, combine the squash, milk, cream, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and the reserved sage butter. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally and watching to make sure the cream mixture does not boil. Simmer the squash until it is very soft, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool slightly. Place about half of the mixture in a blender or food processor and purée. Put the purée back into the pot and repeat with the remaining squash.

Add the Gruyère, the remaining pecorino, the chopped sage, and the cayenne to the puréed squash mixture and stir until the cheese has melted (the heat of the squash mixture should melt it). Add the pasta and stir to combine.

Pour into the prepared baking dish, sprinkle with the bread crumb mixture, and place the fried sage leaves in a decorative pattern on top. Place the dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, or until the mixture is brown and bubbly. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

4. Light(er) mac & cheese

So, you want to make a mac & cheese that's good for the taste buds and the waistline? Obviously mac & cheese isn't inherently a healthy dish, but there are tricks for adding some more nutritional value and cutting calories.

First off, you can use reduced fat or low-fat cheeses. If you're using such a cheese, it's important to cook the mixture slowly since low-fat and reduced fat cheeses (like a skim milk cheese) clump up more easily. You may need to add a few extra teaspoons of flour if your cheese starts to clump.

Second, you can swap regular pasta for whole grain pasta to add some fiber. And third, try adding in some color! Throw in a bunch of arugula, herbed zucchini or tomatoes roasted with garlic to get some more antioxidants.

5. How to nurse a tryptophan hangover

To me, the ultimate diner breakfast isn't the eggs you find there, it's the potatoes - especially when they're in the form of home fries. In this mac & cheese, those home-fried potatoes get their just due by acting as the crowning glory on the creamy, cheesy pasta underneath. And of course, because this IS a mac & cheese, there's also melted cheese on top of those potatoes too. I don't have to wonder what Dr. Atkins would have said about a potato-on-pasta dish, but this is one splurge worth its weight in carbs.

Breakfast Mac 'n' Cheese

Ingredients

1 Tbsp, plus 1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more as needed

8 oz small or medium shell pasta

1/4 cup, plus 2 Tbsp olive oil

1 pound small red potatoes, cut into 1/4-inch chunks (do not peel)

Freshly ground pepper

1 small onion (about 4 oz), cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 medium green bell pepper (about 8 oz), cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 medium red bell pepper (about 8 oz), cut into 1/2-inch dice

2 tsp dried oregano

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups whole or reduced-fat milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

12 oz cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (3 1/2 cups)

2 tsp hot sauce

1/2 tsp dry mustard powder

Ketchup, for serving (optional)

Cooking Directions

Position an oven rack about 6 inches below the broiler and preheat to broil. Butter an 8-inch square (1 1/2-quart) metal pan or six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside. (Note: Do not use a glass pan or a ceramic dish for this recipe. It can break when set under the broiler.)

Fill a 4- to 5-quart pot about three-quarters full with water and add

1 tablespoon of the salt. Bring to a boil and add the pasta. Cook, stirring once or twice, until tender but firm, 4 to 6 minutes for small shells, 8 to 10 minutes for medium shells. Drain, and reserve the pot.

In a large skillet, heat the 1/4 cup of the oil over medium heat. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges are darkened and the potatoes are crisp, 10 to 12 minutes. Add salt and black pepper to taste. Using a slotted spatula or spoon, transfer the potatoes to a plate.

Using the same skillet, cook the onion and bell peppers, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft and beginning to caramelize (darken) around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the oregano and salt and black pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Using the same pot you used to cook the pasta, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the flour and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir constantly until a paste forms, 30 to 45 seconds.

Continue stirring for 1 to 2 minutes more, until the mixture starts to darken slightly and smell a bit nutty. Slowly whisk in the milk and cream and stir until the mixture starts to thicken and is just beginning to bubble around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. It should be thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon.

Add 3 cups of the cheese, the hot sauce and mustard powder and stir until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth but not too runny. It should be similar in texture to cake batter. If it's soupy, continue cooking until it thickens. Turn off the heat and add the pasta and peppers. Stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to the prepared dish. Pile the potatoes on top of the casserole and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the potatoes.

Put the pan on a rimmed baking sheet and place under the broiler. Cook until the cheese is bubbly and golden brown and the potatoes that are peeking out begin to darken, 2 to 3 minutes. Watch carefully, because the cheese and potatoes can burn easily. Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Pass extra hot sauce and/or ketchup, if desired, alongside.


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