Christmas is in a few weeks, and right now many of us are poring over Pinterest, looking for the perfect dish to serve our families on the big day. Some of us will cook turkey, some will order a ham and the vegetarians among us will serve... something. Is there a standard veg staple that everyone turns to for Christmas Day? If there is, please enlighten me.
For my family, I always bring a huge dish of macaroni and cheese, the ultimate hearty expression of love that even the Grinch himself could not resist. Given that Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese just came out, I've got a new favorite for the celebration table. One sentence: a lusciously melty homemade macaroni and cheese gratin, baked in a sugar pumpkin with rosemary, sage, thyme and Italian sausage.
This baked macaroni and cheese recipe was made for your holiday table, given that it takes very little actual work. Seriously, this is one of the easiest dishes in the book. Check it out: You scrape out a pumpkin, bake it, fill it with herbs, shredded cheese, cooked pasta and crumbled sausage, then finish in the oven to melt everything together. That's it. You can even prepare the macaroni part the day before. Just shred the cheese, cook the pasta and sausage, then combine and stick in the refrigerator. A few hours before dinner, pre-bake your pumpkin, drop in the filling, and finish the dish in the oven while everyone sits around sipping egg nog and watching Yule Log on public access. Voila! An epic Christmas recipe that takes not very much time to prepare.
Then there's the visual splendor of this dish, which is unlike any other. Imagine the looks on your family's faces when you walk out of the kitchen carrying a whole steaming pumpkin, the aromas of rosemary, sage, thyme and melty cheese swirling about the room. When you serve this gorgeous squash-bound gratin, you simply stick a big spoon in the middle and stir, scraping out swathes of sweet, baked pumpkin as you serve. I don't use the word often, but this dish is magnificent.
Here we use Fontina and Gruyère, two old-school cheeses that can be found almost anywhere and are well-known for both their gorgeous flavors and melting capabilities. The cheeses are flexible here, though, so you can use whatever you've got on hand. You can use all Fontina, all Gruyère, or even use all cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack, Swiss cheese or any combination thereof. I've made this dish with half Jarlsberg and half Monterey Jack, and it was incredible. We even made a vegetarian version with aged cheddar -- whatever they had handy at Trader Joe's -- along with Soyrizo and chopped, canned chipotle pepper. It was a show-stopper.
My goal was to create a silky, stringy macaroni and cheese gratin, baked in a pumpkin, making for a truly special cheese experience with a little something special. This is my Christmas gift to you. I hope you enjoy it.
Baked Macaroni and Cheese in A Pumpkin
Baked inside a pumpkin -- a trick inspired by Dorie Greenspan and Ruth Reichl -- this recipe simply knocked my socks off with its flavor and stylish yet homey presentation. The cheeses are flexible here, so you can use whatever you've got on hand. For a vegetarian version, I recommend using Kerrygold Dubliner cheddar, Soyrizo vegan sausage and coarsely-chopped, canned chipotle peppers.
1 sugar pumpkin, or other sweet variety (not a carving pumpkin), about 5 pounds
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
¼ pound mild Italian pork sausage
4 ounces elbow macaroni
5 ounces Fontina, cut into ¼-inch cubes
2 ounces Gruyère, cut into ¼-inch cubes
3 scallions, diced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
1 cup heavy cream
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut a circle from the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle, the way you would cut open a pumpkin to make a jack-o'-lantern, and set aside.
2. Scoop out the seeds and strings as best you can. Generously salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin, pop the top back on it, place it on a rimmed baking dish (since the pumpkin may leak or weep a bit), and bake for 45 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. If the sausages are in their casings, remove the meat and discard the casings. Crumble the sausage meat into small chunks and cook until lightly browned. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool. Discard the drippings, or save for gravy or what have you.
4. Also while the pumpkin bakes, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking process.
In a bowl, toss together the Fontina, Gruyère, sausage, pasta, scallions and herbs.
5. Once the pumpkin is done baking, take it out of the oven and fill it with the macaroni and cheese. Pour the cream over the filling. Place the top back on the pumpkin and bake for one hour, taking the top off for the last 15 minutes so the cheese on top of the filling can properly brown. If the top cream still seems a bit too wobbly and liquid, give it another 10 minutes in the oven. The cream may bubble over a bit, which is fine.
6. If the pumpkin splits while baking, as occasionally happens, be thankful you set it in a rimmed baking dish and continue to bake as normal.
7. Allow the pumpkin to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Be careful moving the dish, as the pumpkin may be fragile. You can serve this dish two ways: Cut it into sections and serve them, or just scoop out the insides with scrapings of the pumpkin flesh for each serving. Either way is just dandy. Salt and pepper to taste.