Gather with Friends

Last Saturday night, we gathered around the warm stove, three of my oldest friends and one of the newest, all of us with our husbands. My daughter was home and she joined us. The old dog lay down on her side in the midst of everybody, claiming a good portion of the kitchen floor so we couldn’t ignore her, while the puppy overloaded on the hubbub and fell asleep in his crate. With the pop of a champagne cork, the hiss of the bubbly being poured, with trays of food being pulled hot from the oven, our holiday season started.

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The house won’t be completely decorated until my son comes home for the semester break this weekend and he hangs all the ornaments on the tree. But cohesive decor hardly matters when friends and family have gathered, talked, laughed, shared a good meal, exchanged hugs and good wishes, and parted with broad smiles on faces.

I wish you the joy of gathering over the next few weeks. Make something (or some things) delicious and share the food with people you love. Carry that tradition into the next year, and the next, and your life will be full. As mine is.

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Desserts were bite-sized brownies, coconut cake with lemon cream filling, and ginger peach cobbler made with the last of my frozen, end-of-summer peaches. But first we had mini crabcakes and tomato jam tart topped with goat cheese to nibble on, followed by sliced roast tenderloin and two baked pasta dishes – a lobster, leek, and sundried tomato lasagna; and baked macaroni with pumpkin.

I tested out the pumpkin macaroni and cheese back during Hurricane Sandy. When the storm hit, I had a recipe for the mac and cheese on my desk, one good roasting pumpkin on hand, and the prospect of loads of time inside the house. The recipe, culled from the website Food52, hails from the Providence, Rhode Island restaurant, Al Forno, but while I followed the method for cooking and adding the pumpkin, I veered from the variety of cheeses, choosing instead a classic cheddar. The result: a mac and cheese that tastes familiarly tangy and yet subtly, intriguingly different. Slightly sweet, slightly nutty, very creamy.

The original recipe also calls for pancetta. On my test run, I used what I had in the house, which was some leftover ham. For the party, I used what I had in the fridge, which was a regular old applewood smoked bacon. Both lent smoke and salt to the casserole, plus a nice change from the sameness of mac and cheese’s soft texture.

The dish was even better the next day.

For the original version, you’ll find it here.

For my adaptation, read on.

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Pumpkin Macaroni and Cheese

  • one 2-pound pumpkin, seeds removed, cut into 8 wedges
  • lsat, pepper, and olive oil
  • 1/4 pound bacon, ham, or pancetta, cut into small dice (all are optional, but worth adding)
  • 1 pound pasta such as pipette or small shells
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 12 ounces sharp white cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • panko bread crumbs for topping
  • butter for dotting the top before baking

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the pumpkin wedges on a baking try and sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper, and olive oil.

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Roast the pumpkin for about an hour, or until the flesh is tender when pierced with the tines of a fork. Remove the tray from the oven and let the pumpkin cool enough to handle.

When cool, scrape the flesh from the skin using a spoon.

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Discard the skins and set aside the pumpkin.

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If using bacon or pancetta, crisp the dices in a skillet until the pieces are crisp. Remove the meat from the fat using a slotted spoon, and place the pieces on paper towel to drain. Set aside. If using ham, simply dice and set aside.

Set the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Butter a large casserole dish and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Cook the pasta for 5 or 6 minutes, depending on the shape. It will not be cooked through but will continue to cook later, as the pasta casserole bakes. Drain the pasta and set the colander aside until ready to assemble the dish.

Place 2 cups of the cooled pumpkin flesh into the canister of a blender or the bowl of a food processor. (Freeze any left over and save for baking.) Add the heavy cream to the pumpkin in the blender. Puree until just smooth, and do not overprocess.

Place the partially cooked pasta into a large bowl. Pour over the pasta the pumpkin cream mixture. Add the cheese, the bacon or ham, 1/4 tsp. salt  and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

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Fold all the ingredients together and pour into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle panko crumbs evenly over the top and dot the top with soft butter, about 2 tablespoons. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, or until the cream sauce is heated through and bubbling. If the crumb topping is not brown enough, you may run the dish under the broiler for a minute or two to toast.

Serve hot.

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©2012  Jane A. Ward