I Tried the Viral Copycat Trader Joe’s Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese Recipe

If you’re determined to make your Friendsgiving dish stand out, this copycat recipe of a Trader Joe’s classic is the perfect choice.

Copycat Trader Joe's butternut squash mac and cheese dish with overlay

BHG / Bryce Jones; Design: Better Homes & Gardens

Deciding what to bring to Friendsgiving is a serious endeavor. You don’t want to be labeled as the friend who can’t cook or didn’t put in much effort, but despite your best intentions, it’s still far too easy to leave making your dish for the last minute. Whipping up mashed potatoes from scratch, baking a homemade pie, or roasting an entire turkey takes a certain amount of time and effort you may not be able to give. Luckily, there’s a crowd pleaser that allows you to spend less than an hour in the kitchen and is the epitome of fall comfort: a copycat version of the Trader Joe’s frozen butternut squash mac and cheese.

The recipe was created by food blogger and Brooklyn-based cook Justine Doiron (aka @justine_snacks on Instagram) and consists of roasted butternut squash, three cheeses, and a plethora of warm, Thanksgiving-perfect herbs and spices. The Reel Doiron posted walking through how to make the dish has accumulated more than 70,000 likes, and she wrote on her website that it’s “by far the closest thing to the Trader Joe’s version.”

Trader Joe’s describes its butternut squash mac and cheese as made with “mezzi rigatoni pasta—short, thick, ridged tubes that hold sauces with gusto” which is then “blended with an opulent sauce made with three cheeses (cheddar, gouda, and parmesan), a classic béchamel sauce, the perfect amount of butternut squash pureé, and a sprinkling of seasonal spices like nutmeg and sage. This is comfort food, with vegetables built right in!”

While you can always fall back on the store-bought dish, making it yourself is also a delicious (and shockingly simple) option.

I took it upon myself to test out the homemade version from Doiron before committing to making it my chosen Friendsgiving dish, and while I’ve never tried the one from TJ’s, I can confidently say that this copycat was one of the best mac and cheeses I’ve ever had—and super easy to make. 

Ingredients for butternut squash mac and cheese, including pasta, milk, butternut squash, cheese, and herbs

Bryce Jones

To start, you’ll cut a butternut squash in half, then cut the halves in half and scoop out the seeds. Roast them face down on a baking sheet in the oven for 20 minutes (I also added a drizzle of olive oil and pepper). While the squash is cooking, grate your cheese: The recipe calls for parmesan, gouda, and white cheddar, which I replaced with sharp cheddar. After the squash is done, make the sauce by putting it in a blender along with milk and spices like rosemary, thyme, nutmeg, sage, smoked paprika, and more. It took me a few minutes to get everything smooth, and I definitely recommend cutting the squash into smaller pieces before blending. If I were to change one thing, I would add a little more milk to thin it out and increase the creaminess.

Next, you’ll pour your sauce into a large pot or pan and let it cook down while boiling your noodles. The recipe calls for rigatoni, which is what I opted for, but any sort of cylindrical pasta does the job (like ziti, penne, or fusilli). Once it’s cooked al dente, drain and save about a cup of pasta water—more than you think you need—and set that aside. After adding the noodles to the sauce, throw in a splash of pasta water followed by one of your cheeses. Repeat this process until all your cheese is incorporated and the sauce is at a consistency you like—I added more pasta water than the recipe recommended to help the sauce better adhere to the noodles. Once it comes together, plate it and top it off with a splash of chili oil and red pepper flakes. Obviously you can skip this step, but I found it added an extra level of flavor that was a little unexpected and fun.

Doiron writes on her blog that using butternut squash isn’t a requirement—you can try out different kinds of squash, like acorn or honeynut, or even sweet potato. As for the cheeses, Doiron’s recipe calls for gouda, parmesan, and cheddar, but feel free to try out whatever cheese you want (as long as it’s melty). You can freeze your final product for up to six months, and it lasts in the fridge for five to seven days.

On the Instagram Reel tutorial Doiron posted, some commenters offered up their own spin on the recipe, like substituting the squash with canned pumpkin. Another suggested using soaked cashews, nutritional yeast, and smoked paprika to make the cheese vegan. Others who tried it out for themselves gave feedback: “I made this for a dinner party and it was a HIT!!” one of the comments reads.

Speaking from personal experience, this mac and cheese is top tier. It’s flavorful, cozy, a little spicy, and a little sweet. Plus, you’re getting a serving of veggies! It would make a great main course or side dish for any fall-themed occasion, but especially a get-together like Friendsgiving. It’s easy to transport, serve, and share—and who could be anything but satisfied when offered mac and cheese?

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