When push comes to shove on the whole “pumpkin spice” issue, you’ll find me squarely on the side of those who love the seasonal combination, and I made that obvious recently with my post for sourdough pumpkin spice waffles. But I get it—the flavor isn’t for everyone, or maybe it used to be but has become overplayed, kind of like any number of the classic rock songs that always seem to come up in heavy rotation on our music streaming services. Do I want music with dinner? You bet! But please, not “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Piano Man” for the 37th time this week.
And I guess, for many people, it is the same with pumpkin spice, and we can thank Starbucks and Trader Joe’s for that. But don’t blame it on the pumpkin, which is one of nature’s true powerhouse foods—full of fiber, low in calories, a good source of potassium and, like every other orange-hued vegetable, loaded with the antioxidant vitamin known as beta-carotene. You can still enjoy the benefits of pumpkin without the cliché cinnamon and nutmeg.
Today’s recipe is a perfectly savory example for using and serving this ubiquitous autumn gourd. I had a little better than half a can of pumpkin puree left over from the sourdough waffles I had made, and that was more than enough to flavor up the béchamel-based cheese sauce that wraps around the caserecce pasta in this dish. The other additions to this savory, meatless meal were inspired by the infused olive oil that is my go-to cooking agent this time of year.
Every fall, I purchase a new bottle of this stuff and I use it in so many things, such as roasting vegetables, frying potatoes, amping up the earthy flavor in vegan dishes and even in some of my homemade sourdough bread recipes. For this mac and cheese, I used the mushroom and sage oil in the roux (along with real butter), but I used actual mushrooms and fresh sage in the final dish, too.
The color is vibrant and autumn-like, and the aroma of the sage is, well, intoxicating. The mac and cheese was easy to make, and you can skip the step of baking it, if you prefer a quicker stovetop version. Either way, I hope it gives you a chance to enjoy pumpkin without the overplayed “sweet and spice” aspect.
And for those of you sitting on my side of the pumpkin spice fence, don’t you worry! I’ll be sharing a fun new pumpkin spice recipe that covers my entire wish list for an easy, no-bake Thanksgiving dessert. It’s so simple, I even made it without a kitchen! Watch for it in the second week of November.
4 Tbsp. wild mushroom and sage olive oil* (see notes)
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 Tbsp. salted butter
4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
8 oz. smoked gouda (processed)*, shredded
8 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded
1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not pie filling!)
5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
Small handful fresh sage leaves, finely minced
1 lb. firm pasta shape*
2 Tbsp. melted butter or olive oil
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup parm-romano blend (optional, see notes)
The wild mushroom and sage-infused olive oil is available at specialty oil and vinegar shops. If you cannot get your hands on it, use any favorite olive oil or substitute butter.
The smoked gouda I used for this recipe was technically a “processed” cheese, similar to American in texture. In most of my cheese sauces, I use a processed cheese in the base because it provides a creamier texture. If you prefer, use regular cheese and expect a slightly less silky sauce.
Many of my mac and cheese recipes call for elbows, but when I intend for the dish to be an entree, I choose a sturdier pasta shape, such as caserecce, rotini or farfalle (bow ties). It adds a little more body and makes it more satisfying.
Here’s something interesting I’ve learned recently in my research and development of “meatless” dishes: there is no such thing as vegetarian parmesan. According to this article and many others I’ve found online, the process for making certain cheeses (including parmesan and pecorino romano) requires the use of animal rennet, and there is apparently no suitable substitute. Rennet is an enzyme found in the digestive system of animals, and it cannot be extracted from them while they are living. If you adhere to a vegetarian diet for reasons of animal welfare, omit my parm-romano blend from any of my otherwise “meatless” recipes, and always read labels on the cheeses you buy, just to be sure.
- Heat 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot. Saute the onions until soft, then transfer most of them to a separate bowl.
- Add butter to the pot until melted. Add the flour and whisk until the flour is absorbed and appears bubbly. Add the milk all at once, cooking and whisking continuously until the mixture is smooth and thickened, which could be 8 to 12 minutes. Add shredded gouda and stir or whisk until melted and creamy. Repeat with shredded cheddar. Stir in pumpkin puree until evenly blended.
- For the creamiest sauce, process with an immersion blender for about one minute. This step is optional, but I am sold on this technique, as my sauces turn out as smooth as velvet.
- Prepare the pasta to the al-dente stage, and proceed with the next step while it is cooking.
- In a separate skillet, heat remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Brown the mushroom slices, working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. Add the sautéed onions to heat through and sprinkle in the rosemary.
- Drain the pasta and add it to the cheese sauce, stirring until creamy. I generally add the pasta half at a time, to ensure that I have enough sauce. Fold in the mushroom-onion mixture. If you’re planning to bake the mac and cheese, transfer it to a 2 qt. baking dish and preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in the skillet used for the mushrooms. I had two extra mushrooms, which I chopped into fine bits and sautéed briefly. Toss panko crumbs in the butter mixture and sprinkle it over the mac and cheese before baking.
- Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until crumb topping is slightly crunchy and cheese is bubbling up around all the edges. Cool 10 minutes before serving.