The first signs of fall in the South are not spotted on the trees, with their changing leaves. No, before the maples ever start donning their lovely hues, fall can be found indoors–just walk into your neighborhood grocery store. Boxes of pumpkin pancake mix adorn the ends of aisles, pumpkin creme cakes get their own special treatment in the bakery section and piles of pumpkin, butternut squash, acorn squash and a variety of gourds take center stage in the produce department.
It makes my heart happy when these lovely gourds start appearing. I love pumpkin, and have discovered in recent years that I love squash in general. It wasn’t something we ate much growing up. My earliest squash exposure was pumpkin pie and zucchini bread–both of which are delicious, but neither are particularly healthy. And let’s be honest: when you’re 10, if your mom says, “we’re having squash for dinner,” you’re probably not going to be thrilled. As an adult, I’ve discovered I love squash in all forms–not just desserts laden with fat and sugar.
My best bet to get the healthy benefits of squash AND still have something the Kiddo will eat is to sneak it into meals with clever disguises. Last weekend, I tried three “sneaky squash” recipes out on the Guy and Kiddo. Final results–two of them passed with flying colors, while the third was a hit with the Guy but not the Kiddo.
Squash Attempt #1: Low-Fat Pumpkin Brownies
This one was definitely a winner. These brownies don’t taste exactly like regular brownies–they’re denser and fudgier–but they don’t taste like pumpkin either. So how do you make them? Well, it’s unbelievably easy. Take your favorite brownie mix (one that makes a 13″x9″ pan of brownies) and a 15-oz. can of pumpkin. There. You’re done. Okay, it’s not quite that easy, but almost. Blend the pumpkin (make sure you get just plain ol’ canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) into the brownie mix in a medium mixing bowl until well-blended. Then just follow the baking directions on the box of brownie mix. Ta-da! Nearly fat-free brownies!
I didn’t tell the Kiddo there was pumpkin in the brownies until after he taste-tested them, but I did mention it was a different recipe and the brownies might have a different texture than he was used to. He agreed they were “different” but loved them, even after he learned my baking secret. These were also Guy-approved.
Squash Attempt #2: Butternut Squash Macaroni & Cheese
The Guy and I both absolutely LOVED this recipe–more than traditional baked macaroni and cheese, actually. The Kiddo did not share our love, but I believe the issue was not so much the inclusion of squash as it was that it was HOMEMADE macaroni and cheese, and not the processed-cheese-powder, unnaturally-yellow, from-a-box variety. Let’s be honest–as adults we realize that this processed goop is, well, goop. But kids love it for some reason, and tend not to like the real thing. If your munchkin does happen to like real, homemade, melt-in-your-mouth cheesy macaroni and cheese, then this recipe is probably a winner for them. Because it’s frickin’ awesome. Trust me. Overall, it doesn’t have the extra grease of traditional mac and cheese, and it has a “fluffier” texture.
I was inspired by this Cooking Light recipe, but I tweaked it a bit, both to simplify the recipe and work with the ingredients I had on hand. I also subbed in more kid- and budget-friendly cheeses than the Gruyère that was called for. Here’s my version:
3 cups cubed butternut squash
1 1/4 cups fat-free chicken broth
1 1/2 cups skim milk
16 oz. macaroni, cooked al dente
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup monterey jack cheese, shredded
Salt, pepper and minced fresh garlic or garlic powder, to taste
Nonstick cooking spray
Okay, let’s start with a word about the butternut squash. It’s delectable, but if you’ve ever cooked with it, you also know it’s a pain to work with. They do call them “hard” winter squashes for a reason. And butternut squash is probably the toughest of the bunch, partially because it is fairly large but has a much smaller seed cavity then, say, its pumpkin cousin. If you’ve never tackled one before, I would recommend reading this tutorial before you get started. Also, in this recipe, the cubed squash is ultimately going to get pureed anyway. So I would recommend cutting the ends off and splitting the squash lengthwise (following the linked directions), then roasting the squash until it’s cooked about halfway. Put both halves in a large baking dish covered with foil and bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. If you’ve got a decent-sized squash, you’ll probably only need one half for this recipe. Let the squash cool, then remove the peel with a sharp knife and cube the now-softened flesh.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the rest of the recipe is much easier. Bring the broth, milk and squash to boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until squash is fork-tender (the original recipe calls for 25 minutes, but if you’ve already partially roasted the squash, you’ll probably only need 10-15 minutes).
Next step–puree the squash/milk/broth mixture. You can do this in a blender or in a couple batches in a Magic Bullet (my choice, because it’s much easier cleanup). Just make sure you let the hot mixture cool enough that you don’t end up burning yourself!
Transfer pureed squash into a large mixing bowl and stir in cheese, reserving 1/2 cup cheddar. Stir in pasta, salt, pepper and garlic, then spread pasta mixture into a 13″x9″ glass baking dish, coated with cooking spray. Top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes, removing foil for last five minutes.
Squash Attempt #3: Whole Wheat Pumpkin Waffles
Making pumpkin pancakes is easy–you basically just sub all the liquid in a pancake recipe with canned pumpkin. I had expected similar when I decided to attempt pumpkin waffles, but after exploring several different recipes, both online and in my collection of recipe books, I realized it wouldn’t be quite that simple. While canned pumpkin is a suitable substitute for the eggs when it comes to pancakes, every recipe I found for waffles required egg whites to maintain the lightness a waffle demands. So, not quite as simple as I’d hoped, but it’s still a fairly easy recipe.
This recipe is adapted from one in the “Secrets of Fat-Free Cooking” recipe book by Sandra Woodruff. You’ll notice that I tend to tweak recipes to make them work with the ingredients I have available, my available time and my family’s personal tastes. Changes I made to the book recipe include using white wheat flour in place of the mix of whole wheat and cornmeal called for, using a little more milk (batter was too thick otherwise), and using a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla instead of the pumpkin pie spice.
The result was a fluffy, moist waffle with a slight, but not overpowering pumpkin flavor, which was a hit with both the Guy and Kiddo.
2 cups white wheat flour
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
4 egg whites
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 1/4 cup skim milk
1 tsp. vanilla
In large mixing bowl, mix all dry ingredients. In a medium mixing bowl, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. You can do this with a whisk (as I did) if you don’t feel like dragging out the mixer, but it does take a little longer. Blend milk, pumpkin and vanilla into dry ingredients, then slowly fold in egg whites. Coat waffle iron with nonstick spray. Spoon batter into iron and bake according to manufacturer’s directions. Note–while normally I need to use the nonstick spray on my iron every two to three waffles, because of the lack of fat in these, you will need to spray between each waffle you make.