Loaded casseroles, kale, autumnal fruits and pumpkin spice … let’s make some cozy comfort food. Karen Schneider / For The Forecaster

It’s that time of year when we crave warming foods. As for me, I ramp up my casserole repertoire.

There’s nothing quite as comforting food-wise as creamy mac and cheese, especially when it’s as versatile as this recipe, where you can use whatever soft cheese and leftover meat you have on hand. Besides ham, chicken or bacon is also delicious, or just toss sautéed vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and mushrooms into the pasta and cheese sauce.

Karen Schneider cooks and writes in the village of Cundy’s Harbor. You can reach her at [email protected]

This time around, I spooned the mixture into single-serving size casseroles and had a lovely afternoon taking them to a few friends. That’s the wonderful thing about casseroles, there’s always plenty to share.

I spread the wealth with this kale salad, too, because it’s the best version ever. And for heaven’s sake, if you aren’t massaging your kale, you must! These extra few minutes of your time will transform your salad. You must trust me on this.

For dessert, let’s go big with all things pumpkin spice by starting right out of the gate with Pumpkin Crème Brûlée.

It’s autumn in Maine, loveys – let’s embrace it!

Mac & Cheese for Grown-ups

1 (16-ounce) package medium-size pasta shells
3 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 (9-ounce) package fresh baby spinach, julienned
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 cup butter, plus 2 tablespoons for topping
1/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 1/2 cups milk
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup goat cheese crumbles
2 cups fully cooked ham, cut into bite-size cubes
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup fine bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Cook pasta according to package directions then drain and set aside. Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, sauté onions in olive oil for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Add spinach and rosemary, cooking for 2 more minutes until spinach is wilted.

In a separate large skillet or saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter. Whisk in flour and pepper until smooth. Gradually add milk and bring to a boil, cooking and stirring until thickened, for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in ricotta and goat cheese until blended.

Add ham, onions and spinach, and pasta to sauce and toss to coat. Transfer to baking dish and sprinkle with Parmesan and bread crumbs. Bake for 30 minutes or until browned and bubbling. Yield: 8-10 servings

Kale Salad with Extras

1 bunch curly kale, de-stemmed and torn into bite-size pieces
1 apple or pear, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried fruit, chopped
1/2 cup pomegranate arils

Place kale in a large salad bowl and add the vinaigrette. Massage the dressing into the kale with your hands for a few minutes, then allow the kale to soak it in for at least 30 minutes. Add fruit and topping and toss just before serving. Yield: 4 servings

Vinaigrette

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Whisk together ingredients in a small bowl.

Crunchy topping

1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, toasted in the oven at 300 degrees for 8 minutes
2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt

Combine the ingredients in a mini food processor and process until crumbly.

Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

8 egg yolks
1/3 cup plus 1/2 cup sugar, divided
3 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups canned or pureed pumpkin
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each ginger, nutmeg and cloves

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with 1/3 cup sugar. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat cream until bubbles begin to form at the edges. Remove from heat and stir a small amount of cream into the egg yolk mixture. Pour all back into the saucepan, stirring constantly. Stir in pumpkin, vanilla and spices.

Pour mixture into eight (6-ounce) ramekins or custard cups. Place these in a baking pan and add 1 inch boiling water to the pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until centers of the brûlée are set. Remove from water bath and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

If using a brûlée torch, sprinkle brûlée with remaining sugar, heat sugar with the torch until it’s caramelized and serve immediately. If broiling the brûlée, place ramekins on a baking sheet and allow to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes while broiler is preheating. Sprinkle with sugar. Broil 8 inches from the heat for 4-7 minutes or until sugar is caramelized. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours or until firm. Yield: 8 servings

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