by Stephanie Stiavetti

When we set out to write Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese, our goal was to create inspired dishes that anyone could make at home, regardless of their level of cooking experience. Given our primary ingredient is artisan cheese, a topic that many people find intimidating, we were tasked with developing recipes that took the fear factor out of cooking with cheese. While many folks think that cheese in an “advanced” ingredient, the reality is that cheese is incredibly easy to work with and can produce stunning dishes with very little work. The varieties I call for here are particularly easy to find – Fontina and Gruyére can be found anywhere from Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods to your local independent cheese shop.

Take this dish, for example: a pumpkin stuffed with pasta, Italian sausage, and two kinds of shredded cheese. You literally throw everything into a hollowed-out pumpkin and bake. The addition of a little cream and a few seasonings tightens the flavor even more, and the finished dish is an impressive site if ever there was one. With this bad boy sitting in the middle of your Thanksgiving table, you’ll have a hard time not impressing people!

Pumpkin Stuffed with Fontina, Italian Sausage, and Macaroni

Fontina is a creamy, woodsy, Alpine-style cheese. There are many varieties of Fontina, from Swiss to Italian, with some fine specimens even coming out of Wisconsin. Each has its own unique profile, so be sure to taste them all and pick the one that you like best. Regardless of which you choose, you will get a nice, semi-hard texture and subtle mushroomy flavor.

It just so happens that Fontina pairs beautifully with the sugary flavors of a good baking pumpkin. This recipe, baked inside the pumpkin—a trick inspired by Dorie Greenspan and Ruth Reichl, both famous for their stuffed-pumpkin recipes (among other things)—simply knocked our socks off with flavor and a stylish yet homey presentation.

Although best with Fontina (and a touch of Gruyere, another Alpine favorite), this recipe is flexible and can use whatever cheeses, meats, onions, or extra pasta you have on hand.

Serves 4

1 sugar pumpkin, or other sweet variety (not a carving pumpkin), about 5 pounds

Sea salt

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.

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. In a bowl, toss together the Fontina, Gruyère, sausage, pasta, scallions, and herbs.

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 1 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.

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.

5. 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.

Alternative cheeses:

Fontina and Gruyère are widely available and are best used for this recipe, but feel free to try your favorite cheese. We particularly like Valley Ford’s Estero Gold or its Highway 1 Fontina, as well as Roth Käse’s MezzaLuna Fontina. If you want to try something radical, a creamy blue cheese like Buttermilk Blue or Cambozola will do nicely too.

Wine pairings:

White Rhône Valley blends, Viognier, oaky Chardonnay, champagne

Additional pairings for the cheese:

Apples, toasted walnuts, toasted hazelnuts

Written by Stephanie Stiavetti

Stephanie Stiavetti is a freelance food writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes for KQEDNPR, the Huffington Post, and also dabbles in independent radio and video production. She spends a ridiculous amount of time in the kitchen, recording her adventures at TheCulinaryLife.com.

Her first cookbook, Melt: the Art of Macaroni and Cheese with coauthor Garrett McCord, is due out in 2013 on Little, Brown, Co.

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