Craft-y Macaroni and Cheese

I have fond childhood memories of making the mac and cheese that came in the blue box. My parents didn't let me have it particularly often, but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was perhaps the first meal that I was able to cook on my own (not that it took a lot of skill). It was more of a treat - I remember having friends over for a sleepover during which we made a VERY FANCY version (we cut up hot dogs and mixed them in, along with the milk and butter and powdered cheese).
But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood - the day-glo orange cheesy noodles aren't quite as good as I remember. Don't get me wrong - I still like an occasional bowl of mac and cheese. But it just doesn't cut it for me anymore as a stand-alone meal. I try to atone for the cheesy goodness by mixing in some sort of vegetable (carrots, spinach, etc.). I stir in pepper or Italian seasoning to liven things up a bit.

Which leads me to...going beyond the box. It doesn't really take that much longer to whip up a homemade batch of mac and cheese, and it is infinitely more customizable (and, perhaps, a tad healthier - although, really, it is never going to be a healthy meal). Making your own mac and cheese means that you can pick the cheese that you like (I used a mix of mild and sharp provolone, fontina, and asiago when I made this the first time - the leftovers from an Italian cheese tray, which I chopped up - although cheddar, colby, mozzarella, pepper jack, or many others will also work). And it turns out that you don't have to have powdered, super-processed cheese food product to achieve the bright orange color found in the blue box - squash puree can give you the same result!

Macaroni and Cheese (8 servings)
1 package (13.25 oz.) whole wheat macaroni (penne, shells, or other shapes will also work)
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
ground black pepper to taste
2 c. skim milk
1 1/2 c. shredded or chopped cheese
1 c. cooked squash puree (half of a square frozen package)
1 c. frozen or 3 c. fresh chopped spinach (or try other vegetables)

1. Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then stir in flour and pepper. Stir in milk, cheese, and squash puree. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the cheese is melted and the squash puree is fully incorporated.

3. Toss together pasta, cheese sauce, and spinach. Pour into a 13 x 9 baking dish. Bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes, until heated through.

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