Panko breadcrumbs are the new Ritz crackers, am I right? I grew up eating more ritz-cracker-covered casseroles than I can count, and I’m still a secret fan. My updated version is the crackly crispy panko breadcrumb topping. I’m all about making better versions of things I grew up really loving, and a good crispy casserole is one of those! One of my favorite casseroles growing up was a recipe my parents used from the back of the rotini box with pepperonis, red sauce, ground beef, rotini and a cheesy top. A dish which we named nothing other than just plain “Rotini.”
This recipe is a different take on my old favorite. It’s a cheesy alfredo-like recipe with delicious sweet butternut squash and a crispy cheesy topping. It’s grown up mac and cheese, although who’s to say macaroni and cheese isn’t for grownups. I used a really classic mornay sauce from none other than Julia Child with some extra garlic and sage for oomph. Plus what goes better with garlic and sage than butternut squash?
Let’s get started! First you’re going to roast the squash. Preheat the oven to 350 F. To prepare butternut squash, cut off the ends of the squash and peel the skin off using a vegetable peeler. It’s a thick skin so really get in there! Then slice the squash in half longways. Use a spoon to remove the pulp and seeds. I hate this part. Then cut the squash into half inch cubes. I only used a half of a squash for this recipe, and I freeze the rest for a soup someday! Toss the squash on the baking sheet with a pinch of salt and nutmeg and some olive oil. Roast until the squash is fork tender and remove from the oven.
Meanwhile, cook your pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. You want a nice bite to it since we’re going to bake it again. Drain the pasta and immediately cover with a kitchen towel to keep it from getting sticky. Next, make the cheese sauce. Start by heating your milk over medium heat until very hot. Then make the roux in a separate pot. Over low heat add the butter and melt. Once melted, add the flour and whisk to combine. Keep whisking until the roux bubbles. Add the hot milk and whisk to remove any lumps. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil for one minute. Then reduce the heat to low and add the sage, garlic, nutmeg, cream and half of the parmesan. Whisk together until the cream is warm and the mixture is slightly thickened.
Pour the pasta into a buttered baking dish. To the past add the squash and the cheese sauce. Stir to coat. Take your fresh mozzarella (only the good stuff!) and tear it over top of the pasta. Mix together the panko breadcrumbs and the remaining parmesan in a bowl. Pour over the pasta and place the dish in the oven to bake. Bake for about a half hour and then turn on the broiler to brown the top for just a couple minutes. Watch carefully! It’s so easy to burn things if you forget.
Remove the pan from the oven and let cool slightly before serving.
What were some of your favorite casseroles growing up?
- half of a butternut squash
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1 lb short pasta like cavatappi or ziti
- 3 tbsp flour
- 2 cups milk
- 1 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic minced.
- ¼ tsp nutmeg plus more for sprinkling
- salt and fresh ground black pepper
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
- Preheat your oven to 350 F. Cut off both ends of the butternut squash. Peel the squash with a vegetable peeler, scoop out the seeds and pulp and cut the squash into ½ inch cubes. Add the squash to a large baking dish. Sprinkle ¼ tsp of nutmeg on the squash and coat with the tablespoon of oil. Toss to coat. Bake until the squash is fork tender, about 30 minutes.
- In a large 9x14 baking dish or lasagna dish, use 1 tbsp of the butter to grease the inside of the dish. Salt a large pot of water and bring to a boil for the pasta. Once boiling, add the pasta and boil for 9 minutes or until al dente. Drain into a colander and cover with a towel.
- In a small pot, heat the milk until very hot but not boiling. In another medium sized pot, melt the remaining 2 tbsp butter over low heat. Once melted, whisk in the flour and let it start to bubble. Whisk in the hot milk, sage, garlic, and add a pinch of salt and a pinch of nutmeg. Bring to a boil. Boil for one minute then add the cream and only ½ cup of the parmesan cheese. Turn down to low and heat, whisking on minute. Remove from heat.
- Add the drained pasta to the prepared dish. Add the cooked squash and pour over the sauce. Mix together in the dish with a wooden spoon. In a small dish mix together ½ cup panko breadcrumbs and remaining ½ cup parmesan. Tear the fresh mozzarella into pieces and scatter across the top of the pasta mixture. Sprinkle the parmesan panko mixture all over the top. Bake for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, turn on the broiler to high and broil the top of the dish for a couple of minutes, watching carefully, until the top just begins to brown. Remove from the oven and serve.