Baked Penne with Butternut, Chevre, and Walnuts

In cooking and in life, things don’t always work out. Certainly not as often as you’d like.I’ve been thinking a lot this week about failure. When it happens, should we bloggers talk about it? The temptation is strong to post only “blog-worthy” things. You have to present beautiful food, artfully staged and stunningly photographed on your best dishes. The recipe has to work for every person who tries it, no matter what substitutions they make. There’s no room for things that aren’t The Best Ever. (Also, it’s not just your food that needs to be flawless. Start Photoshopping your profile picture now.)
Blogging culture aims to create a picturesque escape where there are no chipped dishes or dirty countertops. Writers showcase their wit, brilliance, and no-fail recipes in hopes of making it big. Our sights are set on pageviews, followers, sponsors, and cookbook deals. Outright failure, or even mediocrity, isn’t going to drive traffic or increase your credibility. Readers flee imperfection.

Every time something doesn’t work out, I come back to an existential question: Why blog? Am I really doing it for the aforementioned reasons, for attention? Do I really want to be an aproned muffin goddess with a perfect smile and 48,000 Facebook “likes”? I think you know the answer.

Life is messy and cluttered with failures big and small. You botch a big presentation at work, no one laughs at your jokes, and your casserole is ugly. Those moments where the world stands still and everything is beautiful are one in a million. Why is there so much pressure to pretend perfection is normal? I won’t profess that I know everything, or that everything I’ve ever cooked is beautiful and delicious. I just like to cook. Sometimes the things I make are good. You may like them, too. I was going to skip over the failure thing altogether today, or at least try to write about it from a snarky, blame-the-recipe perspective. But then I thought, you know what? None of that is real. None of that is genuine. Sometimes you try to make butternut squash lasagna and your noodles disintegrate and there’s too much sauce and the end result is a bland pile of overcooked mush. Some days you’re just a shitty cook.But don’t take these episodes personally. Don’t apologize for serving a dinner that was supposed to be amazing but wasn’t. Don’t fall into a funk for the rest of the day, or cry over pancakes. It’s just food.

 Quite often, I ponder my flops for a few days and ultimately write them off as a “learning experience” and move on. But other times I start thinking about walnuts, and herbes de Provence, and that one time my friend put butternut cubes in baked mac & cheese. And sometimes, magic pasta happiness results.
Baked Penne with Butternut, Chevre, and Walnuts
Serves 8
Inspired by Fine Cooking's Butternut Squash Lasagne with Goat Cheese, Sage, and Breadcrumbs. This takes about an hour to assemble, and then some more time to bake. To prepare in advance, cook the pasta, toast the walnuts, and roast the cubed squash ahead of time. Once the components are prepared, all you have to do is make the sauce, pour on top, and bake with the topping.
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  1. 18 oz. dry gluten-free pasta (I prefer rice + corn blends), cooked al dente according to package directions
  2. 1 (about 2-lb.) butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and diced into 3/4" cubes
  3. 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  4. 2 tsp. herbes de Provence (or 1 tsp. dried sage + 1 tsp. dried thyme)
  5. salt & pepper
  6. 4 oz. walnuts
  1. 1 tsp. dried sage
  2. 1 1/2 oz. (3 Tbsp.) butter
  3. 1/2 oz. (about 3 Tbsp.) white rice or other gluten-free flour
  4. 3 1/2 c. whole milk
  5. salt & pepper, to taste
  6. 4 oz. plain chevre, crumbled
  7. 1 oz. grated pecorino or Parmesan
  1. 1 1/2 oz. breadcrumbs
  2. 1 oz. grated pecorino or Parmesan
  3. pepper
  1. Spread cooked pasta over the bottom of a 9" x 13" baking dish and set aside.
  2. Roast squash: Preheat oven to 375F. Prepare a roasting pan and spread squash cubes on the pan. Drizzle olive oil over cubes and sprinkle with herbs, salt, and pepper. Toss briefly with your hands to coat evenly. When oven is hot, roast 30-35 minutes, stirring once, until cooked through.
  3. Toast walnuts & prepare topping: While squash is roasting, sneak your walnuts in the oven, too. Spread over a small pan and toast 6-8 minutes until golden, keeping a close eye on them. Remove and roughly chop 3 oz. of the nuts. Sprinkle these over the cooked pasta. Finely chop the remaining 1 oz. walnuts and mix with the breadcrumbs and 1 oz. grated cheese. Set aside.
  4. Prepare sauce: Melt butter over medium heat in a large saucepan with the sage. Add rice flour and cook 2 minutes to remove the raw flour taste. Add milk in a thin stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps (it will seize at first; just keep whisking!). Cook 3 minutes until sauce thickens slightly and begins to bubble. Add chevre and grated cheese and whisk until they melt into the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. When the squash is finished roasting, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Turn oven down to 375F. Use a spatula to transfer squash to the 9" x 13" baking dish with pasta and walnuts.
  6. Pour sauce evenly over noodle mixture. It will look like a lot, but that's okay. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold all ingredients together and distribute the sauce evenly. Sprinkle topping mixture evenly on top and dust with pepper. (If you want to freeze from this point, go ahead. Cook at 350F straight from the freezer for about an hour.)
  7. Bake 15-20 minutes at 375F, until golden and bubbling at edges. Remove from oven and allow to rest at least 10 minutes before cutting in.
Adapted from from Fine Cooking's Butternut Squash Lasagne with Goat Cheese, Sage, and Breadcrumbs
Wooden Spoon Baking