Candice Kumai's Vegan Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese

Chef Candice Kumai takes the classic mac and cheese for a whole new spin. Her vegan mac and cheese recipe retains the same creamy and gooey texture as the traditional version with the help of coconut milk and butternut squash.

1 Medium butternut squash, peeled, halved, seeded, and chopped into 1-inch cubes (or substitute with organic canned pumpkin, approximately 1 1/2 15-oz cans
4 Garlic cloves (finely chopped)
2 Sprigs of fresh thyme
3/4 tsp Sea salt
1 cup Canned light coconut milk
4 cups Pasta shells or penne (cooked and drained)
1/4 cup Nutritional yeast (plus 2 tbsp)
Coconut oil or olive oil cooking spray (for the pan)
1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
1 tbsp Granulated garlic powder
1/4 tsp Sea salt
1/2 cup Finely chopped kale leaves
2 tbsp Grated cheese

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly coat a 9×13-inch pan with coconut oil or olive oil cooking spray.

In a large saucepan, combine the butternut squash/pumpkin, garlic cloves, thyme sprigs, salt, and coconut milk. Cook over medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, and making sure all the butternut squash is submerged. Simmer until the pumpkin is fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs.

Carefully place the squash mixture in a food processor or blender and purée until velvety smooth.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and rinse with cool water. Remove all excess liquid.

Spread out the pasta in the prepared pan, and pour the squash/pumpkin–coconut milk purée over the pasta. Gently fold in the nutritional yeast and mix well to combine, ensuring that all noodles are coated. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and place in preheated oven. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly and cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine panko bread crumbs, garlic powder, sea salt, and finely chopped kale leaves, for the topping.

Remove the mac and cheese from the oven, uncover, and sprinkle the top with the herbed bread-crumb topping, followed by a sprinkle of the grated cheese. Transfer to the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes until brown and bubbly.