The first part of this story goes back, say, maybe five years. I was just beginning to study food systems and had read Michael Pollan’s fabulous book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was totally obsessed with food and where it came from and how it all happened, and I remember sitting in the classroom of the facility I used to work at, a popular study space for the staff there, and absolutely grilling one of the girls about the dairy farm I had just found out her family owned. And I do mean grilling; I had questions about the farm, the cows, the milk, the process, the system. Nadine, perpetually cheerful and amazingly patient with my city-girl enamorment of all things farm, would sit and answer my unending questions.
The cheese was, at this stage, just a notion. Something that might become. So you see, I feel like I’ve been on a journey with this cheese from it’s inception. I remember listening to Nadine tell me about food safety workshops her mom had attended, or cheese making experts they were tapping into, and the desire to handle their own product from beginning to end. I remember when the cheese-making facility was constructed on their land, and was told of the fastidious details that went into making the operation sustainable. Thanks to an interview I conducted with Nadine for a paper I wrote not too long ago, I’ve learned in depth about how the dairy farm and the cheese making facility work as an integrated system, and how the utmost of respect is shown to the animals on the farm.
The first samples of Kootenay Alpine Cheese landed on my desk a couple of years after that initial conversation, wrapped in red paper like a festive gift to reward my (seriously lacking) patience (“Where’s the cheese, Nadine? Is the cheese ready yet? What’s going on with the cheese? Huh? Huh? Huh?”). Those first tastes were incredible, and, fancying myself a bit of an expert on this particular cheese, it has only improved since then. A vendor list for Kootenay Alpine Cheese is available here. Do check the list out even if you’re not a Vancouver local, their cheese is now seen as far away from the Kootenay’s as New York! Maybe I can become their Swedish rep?!
The second part of this story is a little more recent. Around a year ago, give or take, my foodie friend Meg posted a recipe on her blog for a mac ‘n’ cheese with a sauce using a butternut squash base. I made her recipe, loved it, and made it again. And again. The only problem with the original recipe was that it required the use of a blender, something that my otherwise amazing Swedish kitchen is sorely lacking (along with most other electronic kitchen devices). Back in October I made a pitch trying to convince you to process some pumpkins. Some of you took it real seriously. My friend Nicole, for example, was banned from bringing any more pumpkins into her house, and reminds me frequently about the 21 cups of puree and 18 cups of roasted pumpkin slices she’s got in her freezer all because of me. My sister in law, Cammy, was in the business of ‘rescuing’ pumpkins from apartment lobbies around Calgary and processing them; I’m not sure exactly how many cups she’s got in her freezer. The point is, I needed to come up with version of this recipe that a) didn’t require a blender, and b) used some of that pumpkin puree that I encouraged you all to stow away.
The last part of this story is the most recent: before I left Sweden to head back for a semester of on campus courses in Vancouver, I did my best to fill the freezer with nourishing and tasty meals for my very busy fella. One of the dishes that I made and tucked into the freezer un-baked, in individual portions, with baking instructions, was this very delicious pumpkin mac ‘n’ cheese.
I love so many things about this dish. Using equal parts of creamy pumpkin puree and strong tasting cheese in the sauce means that it is rich and creamy without being outrageously high in fat. The pumpkin adds a load of nutrients you wouldn’t otherwise see in a mac ‘n’ cheese, like carotenes, which is a pre-cursor to Vitamin A, fibre, potassium, vitamin C, and manganese. A nice strong cheese, like the Alpindon I’ve used here, mingles a little with the pumpkin flavour, but also hides it enough that if you’re trying to sneak some extra goodness into a picky eater, they probably wouldn’t notice the pumpkin unless you pointed it out. The sauce comes together quickly, in about the same amount of time it will take for the pasta to cook, if not a little less, and it doesn’t take long to bake. This recipe also freezes really well unbaked, so it’s a great dish to stash away in the freezer for busy times, or to pass along to a busy friend. I hope you’ll give it a try.
Pumpkin Mac ‘n’ Cheese Recipe:
Smoked paprika rounds out the flavour in this velvety pumpkin cheese sauce. If you can’t track down Alpindon cheese, use another strong flavoured cheese (Alpindon is modeled after Beaufort d’Alpage). I used whole wheat pasta to bump up the fiber content, but you could switch in your favourite baking pasta if whole wheat isn’t your thing.
1 package of whole wheat macaroni or penne pasta (375g)
2 cups milk
3 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp all purpose flour
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 cup grated cheese, strong tasting
1 cup pumpkin puree
3/4 tsp smoked paprika
salt and pepper
4 Tbsp bread crumbs (I used panko)
4 Tbsp Parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp olive oil
Preheat oven to 200 C/ 400 F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 x 9 or deep 9 x 4 oven proof dish, and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to boiling over high heat, and cook pasta until just barely tender. Drain and set aside.
In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed sauce pot, heat the milk, butter, flour, and bay leaf over medium-high heat. Once the milk comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the sauce has begun to thicken stirring frequently with a whisk, careful to not burn the milk. Once the sauce has thickened (it should coat the back of a spoon), remove the bay leaf, and using a whisk to combine, melt in the grated cheese. Add the pumpkin puree, smoked paprika, and salt and pepper to taste.
In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, grated Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.
Combine the cooked pasta and the sauce, and spoon into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the bread crumb topping over the pasta, and toss into the oven. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until the top is browned and crispy, and the sauce is bubbling up the sides. Let stand for 5 minutes prior to serving.
All text and photos © The Muffin Myth 2011