Thanksgiving side dishes for big or small groups: Mac and cheese, roasted squash and corn pudding

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Thanksgiving side dishes for big or small groups: Mac and cheese, roasted squash and corn pudding. (Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.)

This holiday season, you’re probably hosting a smaller group for the festive meal. No pulling out that extra leaf for your dining room table or setting up that rickety card table for the “kids.”

Maybe you’ll see the extended family for an after-dinner drink on Zoom, but for the meal itself you may be looking at ways to scale back while maintaining that delicious festivity. We are, too. So several of us decided to share a favorite family recipe that can easily be scaled up if your pandemic bubble is big, or down if you’re cooking for a small group.

Our favored holiday recipes include a lusciously indulgent macaroni and cheese adapted by G. Daniela Galarza from Patti LaBelle’s recipe, a tahini-dressed roasted butternut squash plate from Olga Massov and a ridiculously simple corn pudding recipe from my family table.

These dishes – so varied in flavor and style – have a couple of things common. They are straightforward and easy to prepare, and they are adaptable to your favorite flavors, too.

Let’s dig in.

– – –

Patti LaBelle’s Macaroni and Cheese

Since I started cooking Thanksgiving dinners for family or friends exactly 20 years ago, the only constant I had in mind was to try as many new recipes and flavors as possible.

Some years I brined the turkey, other years it was smoked, spatchcocked or slow-roasted. One year there were six kinds of tubers – mashed, smashed red, Hasselback, au gratin, candied yams and browned butter sweet potatoes – because I couldn’t decide on only one or two. But it wasn’t until around a decade ago, when my stepfather mentioned offhand that he loved macaroni and cheese as a Thanksgiving side dish, that I entertained the idea of cheesy pasta as a side along with potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

I know macaroni and cheese has long been a part of a lot of traditional Thanksgiving tables; I regret not seeing the light sooner. And though I tend to prefer a stove-top style when I’m making it for myself, when I’m serving it for Thanksgiving, I gravitate to this recipe, which I adapted from Patti LaBelle’s 1999 cookbook “LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About.”

It’s rich with five different kinds of cheese, including Velveeta, which gives it a creaminess that’s impossible to match. My stepfather always adds a splash of hot sauce, which is a tradition I’ve come to love, too.

– G. Daniela Galarza

Patti LaBelle’s Macaroni and Cheese

Active time: 25 minutes | Total time: 40 minutes

6 servings

One afternoon in the late 1990s, I was watching “Oprah” when Patti LaBelle waltzed onto the kitchen stage for a segment I’ll never forget. To promote her new book, “LaBelle Cuisine,” she was making a recipe she called Over-the-Rainbow Macaroni and Cheese. Oprah introduced the segment by reading a story from the book about the time in the 1960s, in London, when British band Bluesology played back up to Patti LaBelle & The Blue Belles. The piano player, Reggie Dwight – now better known as Elton John – caught LaBelle’s attention: “He played like no other white boy I’ve ever heard,” LaBelle wrote.

“What happened is he was forced into eating my food, because he didn’t have any money to buy food, because we played cards and I won all of his money. . . . So I said, ‘Boo, since I took your money, I might as well feed you. Come to my place and I’ll fix dinner for you and the band,'” LaBelle explained. One of the dishes she made was this macaroni and cheese, which contains five types of cheese, including Velveeta. Like a lot of Oprah’s in-studio audience that day, I was mesmerized by LaBelle’s style and verve in the kitchen, and I couldn’t wait to make the recipe. As promised, it sent me over the rainbow.

For various reasons, including one year when I hosted a friend who had an egg allergy, I’ve adapted it slightly from LaBelle’s original recipe. I swapped a few sharper cheeses for LaBelle’s blend; feel free to use your favorite types, but don’t skimp on the Velveeta. In this adaptation, a light roux forms a cream sauce with the half-and-half, giving the cheese something to melt into as it bakes in the oven. This also makes it easier to prepare the macaroni and cheese in advance. If you’re making it a day or two before, refrigerate it unbaked, until you’re ready to serve it, and then bake it in a 350-degree oven for at least 20 minutes, or until it’s hot and bubbling.

Make Ahead: The macaroni and cheese can be covered, assembled in the pan and refrigerated up to 25 minutes before baking.

Storage Notes: Leftovers may be refrigerated in a covered container for up to 4 days. Alternately, slice the cooked and cooled macaroni and cheese into bricks, tightly wrap in plastic wrap and freeze it. Defrost and reheat in the microwave.


4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided

1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded or grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Muenster cheese

1 cup (8 ounces) Velveeta, cut into small cubes

2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, or more to taste

1 pound elbow macaroni

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 1/2 cups half-and-half

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper or other ground red chile, or to taste (optional)


Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.

In a medium bowl, toss together the Parmesan, Monterey Jack, cheddar, muenster and Velveeta. Reserve about 3/4 cup of the cheese mixture for the topping.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and the macaroni, and cook until just tender, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes. Drain the pasta, give it a stir and set it aside while you make the sauce.

In the same pot, over medium-high heat, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter until it foams, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and whisk until the flour sizzles and turns blond without letting it brown, about 2 minutes. Whisk in 2 cups of the half-and-half. Reduce the heat to medium, switch to a rubber spatula and stir until the mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of half-and-half and remove from the heat. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, black pepper and cayenne or chile pepper, if using.

Add all but the reserved cheese mixture and stir until completely incorporated. Carefully stir in the cooked macaroni, breaking up any large pieces that may have stuck together, until just combined. The cheeses will not all be melted. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and then pour into the prepared 9-by-13-inch dish. Top with the reserved 3/4 cup of the cheese mixture.

Bake, uncovered, for 15 to 25 minutes, or until the cheeses on top are melted and the mixture is bubbling and hot.

Variations: For a stove-top version, keep the pasta and cheese in the pot and stir over low heat until the cheeses are melted and the macaroni is hot, about 10 minutes.

Nutrition | Calories: 767; Total Fat: 48 g; Saturated Fat: 26 g; Cholesterol: 132 mg; Sodium: 1350 mg; Carbohydrates: 70 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 5 g; Protein: 35 g.

Adapted from “LaBelle Cuisine” by Patti LaBelle (Clarkson Potter, 1999).

– – –

Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion With Tahini and Za’atar

At the center of Thanksgiving lore is the myth that turkey makes you sleepy. Unfairly maligned, the turkey is not the culprit here. Instead, what makes you drowsy and groggy is the fact that you’ve probably eaten a lot, and the side dishes were pretty heavy.

I don’t want to denigrate any Thanksgiving dish: They are all worthy of being on your table – it is, after all, a holiday, and 2020 has been, as the kids say, “a year.” But, perhaps, if we throw in a few vegetable-forward dishes, such as this roasted squash and onion, dressed with zippy tahini dressing and showered with toasted pine nuts and za’atar, we might feel more alert and energized by the time dessert is served.

When I spied this recipe in the best-selling cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, I knew I would love it, but I had no idea just how much until I tasted it.

In addition to incredible flavors, this is a visual stunner: Chunks of jewel-toned orange butternut squash against deep purple roasted onions with a bright ivory drizzle of lemony-garlicky tahini, emerald-green flecks of parsley and the sprinkle of za’atar. The colors will make you swoon; the taste will make you not want to share. Best of all, the dish lends itself to all kinds of tweaks: Swap out pine nuts for pistachios or toasted pepitas, replace tahini with an herby yogurt sauce, use cilantro or dill in place of parsley. Heck, if you don’t have squash, sweet potatoes will do just fine. If I’m feeling fancy, I use pomegranate seeds for their puckery punch and festive color.

The first time I made this for Thanksgiving, eight years ago, my sister-in-law Aviva nearly devoured the whole platter herself. She then proclaimed that if I want her at future Thanksgivings, this side must be present.

– Olga Massov

Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion With Tahini and Za’atar

Active time: 30 minutes | Total time: 50 minutes

2 to 4 servings

This flavorful, bright side is a must-have at my Thanksgiving table, and it suits vegetarians, vegans and those who keep gluten-free. It can counterbalance traditional, heavier holiday dishes.

Chunks of yielding, slightly sweet squash and wedges of caramelized onions are brightened by a lemony, garlicky tahini sauce and crunchy toasted pine nuts, and finished with a shower of fresh parsley and za’atar. You’ll be hard-pressed deciding if this side looks better than it tastes – or vice versa.

And although the spirit of Thanksgiving is about sharing, this dish may make you want to keep it all to yourself.

Make Ahead: The vegetables may be roasted up to 3 days in advance.

Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Where to Buy: Tahini and za’atar can be found at Middle Eastern groceries, well-stocked supermarkets and online.


1 medium butternut squash (1 pound 8 ounces) peeled and cut into 1-by-2 1/2-inch chunks

1 large red onion (8 ounces), cut into eighths

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons tahini, or more as needed

2 tablespoons water, or more as needed

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 small clove garlic, grated

3 tablespoons raw pine nuts

1 tablespoon za’atar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling


Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 475 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the squash and onion and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1 teaspoon of the salt, a few twists of the pepper grinder, and toss to combine. Spread the vegetables on a large, rimmed baking sheet, leaving space among the pieces, and roast for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the vegetables have taken on some color and are cooked through with a little char. (Keep an eye on the onion: If it starts to burn before the squash is cooked, you may need to remove it and finish roasting the squash.) Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.

While the vegetables are roasting, in a small bowl, whisk together the tahini, water, lemon juice, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt until the sauce is the consistency of honey. You might need to add more water or tahini, depending on the consistency.

In a small skillet over medium-low heat, heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil until shimmering. Add the pine nuts and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring often until the nuts are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a small bowl.

To serve, spread the vegetables out on a serving platter and drizzle with the tahini sauce. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, and garnish with the za’atar and parsley. Sprinkle with a little flaky sea salt and serve.

Nutrition (based on 4 servings) | Calories: 320; Total Fat: 22 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 588 mg; Carbohydrates: 29 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 7 g; Protein: 5 g.

Adapted from “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012).

– – –

Corn Pudding

My sister Maureen always makes the corn pudding for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s understood. As a family, we only eat this dish on those two holidays. Why? Who knows. It’s tradition.

So, when I realized I wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving in 2020, but knew I wanted to maintain this custom, I sent her a text and asked for the recipe.

It’s so simple. Gather milk, eggs, a bit of onion, sugar and flour; open a can of whole kernel corn, pull out the blender and whir together a fluffy savory pudding that requires just 10 to 15 minutes of hands-on time. That alone makes it a keeper for those who are preparing multiple dishes for a holiday dinner.

The three large eggs give the casserole lift. It comes out of the oven puffed like a souffle but quickly deflates before it makes it onto the holiday table. It is smooth, not too sweet or oniony, but so corny in its simplicity. “Wait, I didn’t get any corn pudding,” someone inevitably calls out as the dish quickly empties as it is passed around the table.

As the family grew with grandkids and in-laws, Maureen began whirring together two and sometimes three casseroles for the holiday meal. As kids moved away, she downshifted to a smaller batch. It is something we count on just as it is.

That said, it is so simple that it would be easy to jazz up with crumbled bacon, minced jalapeño pepper or a dash of nutmeg, but I’m betting that would not go over so well in my family.

Yes, folks might bring a side dish made with quinoa, they might add goat cheese to the mashed potatoes or sub in Brussels sprouts for green beans, but this dish is sacrosanct. Everyone knows exactly what it will taste like when they dip the big spoon in for a serving. And that is its point and its place on our holiday table.

– Ann Maloney

Corn Pudding

Active time: 10 minutes | Total time: 55 minutes

4 to 6 servings

This simple recipe creates a souffle-light corn pudding that is guaranteed to be scooped up and gone in minutes. It emerges from the oven slightly puffed, but will deflate and settle quickly.

Fresh, frozen or canned corn work well in this recipe. The ingredients are whirred in a blender and then poured into a greased casserole dish and baked, making it a perfect side dish for a harried weeknight or busy holiday season.

Want to vary it? Add a seeded jalapeño to the mix, or stir in crumbled bacon just before baking.

Storage Notes: Leftover corn pudding can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.


3/4 cup whole milk

3 large eggs

Scant 1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) rough chopped fresh onion

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 (15-ounce) can whole kernel corn

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) salted butter, melted, plus more for greasing the pan


Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, add the milk and heat until it just begins to steam and tiny bubbles appear, about 3 minutes – this is called “scalding.” If you have an instant-read thermometer, the milk should be about 180 degrees.

In the jar of a blender, in this order, combine the eggs, onion, flour, sugar, corn, butter and milk. This keeps the eggs and hot milk separated until blended, which prevents curdling. Pulse about 6 times, until the corn is well chopped but not pureed.

Grease a 8-inch square baking dish. Pour the mixture into the dish and place it in the oven.

Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the pudding is set, a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, and the edges are just beginning to brown. The pudding still will be a bit jiggly.

Place the baking dish on the table and serve family style.

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