Three Cheese Pumpkin Mac with Pancetta and Sage
Like I’ve said many times before, my Thanksgiving menu is traditional/non-negotiable, and I wouldn’t dream of including the outrageously delicious Three Cheese Pumpkin Mac with Pancetta and Sage on your screen.
But things aren’t always about ME (shocker), especially when it comes to T-Day sides, and dreaming up an annual offering is as important a part of my holiday tradition as cocktail hour in the bath or Logan’s midday plate of pigs in a blanket. You see, one of my best friends, Annie, celebrates her family’s Thanksgiving potluck-style. Each attendee is responsible for preparing a single dish, and for as long as I’ve had my fancy cooking skills, I’ve been Annie’s “woman behind the curtain.”
I take this job very seriously.
Every year circa November 1, I call upon my culinary creativity and begin the brainstorming process for “Annie’s side.” I can’t send her to the table with basic mashed potatoes, people! Her dish needs to be creative. It needs to be crowd-pleasing. It needs to either travel well and be served at room temperature OR have make ahead components so that I do not induce pre-dinner cooking anxiety or prompt a fist fight between siblings over precious oven space. Most importantly, it must be the standout dish at dinner so that Annie is showered in the compliments she deserves. She’s the best. (Also, I am competitive.)
Not gonna lie, I feel pretty angsty right now. Last year’s Fall Farro Salad was a sleeper hit, and I’m perpetually trying to outdo 2013’s Sweet Potato Gratin, which was arguably my finest work. However after much testing and retesting, I feel confident that come Thursday, Annie will have a solid shot at the T-Day crown with this creamy, savory Three Cheese Pumpkin Mac.
Let’s break this down, shall we? First things first, the pumpkin-laced cheese sauce. We start by browning plenty of diced pancetta, then make a simple roux using a little of the pancetta grease and flour before adding fresh sage and milk. Once that thickens slightly, we stir in subtly sweet pumpkin puree and a few spices, and add nutty Fontina, extra sharp cheddar, and Pecorino Romano. Pasta gets folded into this warm, cheesy deliciousness and topped with more cheese and garlicky breadcrumbs. Then under the broiler it goes to get bubbly and golden brown. Cue squeals of delight and, in a perfect world, happy tears.
A few recipe notes to make your life easier should you choose to serve this on Thanksgiving. (Needless to say, it also makes a killer anytime meal.) I recommend making the sauce in the same vessel that you plan to serve your Pumpkin Mac in. I’m obsessed with my Le Creuset braiser, but your largest ovenproof skillet or shallow sauté pan is also great. If you don’t have an attractive ovenproof vessel, no worries. Simply transfer the mac to a casserole dish before broiling!
Feel free to whip up the sauce the day before or in the morning and then gently reheat it on the stovetop about 20 minutes before serving. Once it’s heated through, add the pasta, extra cheese and breadcrumbs (which you can also prep in the morning), and broil for a couple minutes after you’ve gotten the rest of your sides out of theoven. Done and done.
Since I know some of you will ask, yes, you can bake your Pumpkin Mac (20 minutes at 375 should do it), although I find it’s much more luscious when it goes stovetop to broiler. The pasta absorbs more of the sauce when baked, and the resulting mac can be a tad dry. With that said, if you’re set on baking, I recommend reducing the amount of pasta slightly, so that things are extra saucy going into the oven.
And now for the requisite you do you options. Any type of short pasta will work here (although I’m partial to casarecce and cavatappi). Play with cheeses, but make sure you’ve got at least one good melting cheese like Fontina (Gouda and provolone are great.) A bacon or your favorite sausage are excellent subs for pancetta. Vegetarian? Cool. Start the cheese sauce by melting 2 tablespoons of butter in your pan. When the butter is melted and frothy, stir in the sage, then whisk in the flour and continue making the sauce as written. If you want to use homemade pumpkin puree (so domestic!), you’ll need just shy of 2 cups. Butternut squash puree would also be bomb. When it comes to the herbs, go ahead and add extra sage if you’re so inclined, and/or get some fresh thyme involved. A pinch of cinnamon will enhance the pumpkin’s sweetness, and don’t hesitate to up the garlic powder or add a pinch of cayenne if you’re feeling it. I love it when you make things your own.
Happy holidaze, friends! I’m excited.
Three Cheese Pumpkin Mac with Pancetta and Sage Serves 4-6 as an entrée/10-12 as a side
1 pound short pasta of your choice (I’m partial to cavatappi, casarecce, rigatoni, and fusilli.)
½ pound diced pancetta (Bacon is also good.)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups 2% milk
One 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
¼ teaspoon garlic powder (or more to taste)
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano will also do.)
1½ cups extra sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1½ cups grated Fontina cheese, divided (Gouda is also a good option.)
Freshly ground black pepper
For the crispy topping:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves
½ cup panko bread crumbs (I like whole-wheat, but you do you.)
Pinch of kosher salt
-Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta al dente according to the package directions. Drain and briefly set aside.
-Meanwhile, get going on the crispy topping. Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When the butter is melted and frothy, add the garlic and cook until lightly golden, about a minute to 90 seconds. (Be very, very careful not to let it burn, people!! If it starts to color too quickly, turn down the heat.) Stir in the sage, bread crumbs, and a tiny pinch of salt. Once all the crumbs are coated in the butter (this is going to help them get nice and golden later), immediately transfer the toping to a small bowl and briefly set aside.
-Heat a large shallow braiser (I like to cook it in my Le Creuset braiser that is broiler-safe and can be used as a serving dish) or Dutch oven over medium heat. When hot, add the pancetta and cook until lightly browned and crisp, about 6 minutes. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of the grease from the pan and return it to the stove. Stir in the sage and cook for about 30 seconds, then add the flour and cook for 1 minute just until the flour is golden. Whisk in the milk. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, whisking occasionally, or until the sauce has thickened slightly (it should just coat the back of a spoon).
-Stir in the pumpkin puree, garlic powder, and nutmeg. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the Pecorino Romano, 1 cup of cheddar, and 1 cup of Fontina. Season with salt (the pancetta and cheeses are salty, so start small and be careful) and freshly ground black pepper to taste. The sauce should be luscious and creamy. (If seems to thick, add another tiny splash of milk.)
-Preheat the broiler on high. Place an oven rack about 6 inches from the heating element.
-Fold the pasta into the warm sauce and cook for a minute or two until everything is heated through. (If you’re not cooking in your serving dish, transfer the mac and cheese to a casserole dish now.)
-Sprinkle the mac with the remaining ½ cup cheddar and ½ cup Fontina. Top with the prepared crumb mixture.
-Broil until the cheese is melted and the bread crumbs are golden and toasty, about 2 minutes. (KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON IT! Broilers are fickle beasts and you don’t want your mac to burn.)
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