What dish, to you, defines “comfort food”? My pick: healthy Ham and Cheese Casserole with Apples and Sage.
Well that’s not entirely true—my actual answer is a hybrid between my Grammy’s homemade ham macaroni and cheese and my Grandma’s “party ham casserole.” The first is categorically cheesy; the second smothered in crispy, buttery breadcrumbs; both involve chunks of salty ham and unapologetic levels of heavy cream.
My grandmothers’ versions of ham and cheese casseroles are exactly the sort of dishes you want to curl up with on a chilly evening, when the sun sets too early, the wind blows too strong, and you realize that a comforting pasta bake and a pair of sweatpants might be the secret combination to a lifetime happiness.
Today’s recipe for Ham Apple Cheddar Pasta Bake is my grown-up version of these favorites. To complement and elevate the ham and cheddar, I added sweet apples, sautéed onions, and earthy sage. I kept the irresistible crunchy breadcrumb topping (mandatory) but ditched the cream of mushroom soup.
I’m giddy about the magic that happens between the sage, apples, and cheddar, but my favorite part about this dish is the white sauce. Over the years I’ve been on a quest to develop a recipe for a healthier creamy white sauce that a) thickens in a reasonable amount of time and b) doesn’t taste healthy.
Many sub-par pasta nights later, this is it: the healthier white sauce of my dreams. A touch of butter and half-and-half are needed, but the rest of the thickness comes from Greek yogurt and a handful of freshly grated sharp white cheddar cheese. I was so excited, I almost took a bath in it. Just kidding. Kind of.
While I still indulge in my grandmothers’ original recipes every now and then, today’s comforting Ham and Cheese Casserole with Apples and Sage is a modern version that any family can feel good about enjoying on a regular basis. It’s reasonably healthy, contains a fabulous array of fall flavors, and makes fantastic leftovers too.
Ham Apple Cheddar Pasta Bake: Doing my grandmothers proud one comfort food casserole at a time!
Healthy Ham and Cheese Casserole with Apples and Sage
For the Pasta:
- 1 pound whole wheat penne
- 12 ounces diced ham (I used thickly sliced Virginia ham from our deli)
- 3 medium sweet apples, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice (I used Gala)
- 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves thinly sliced, dived
For the Sauce:
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 small yellow onion chopped
- 3 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups non-fat milk
- 1/4 cup half and half
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup plain non-fat Greek yogurt
- 1 cup freshly grated sharp white cheddar cheese
For the Bread Crumb Topping:
- 3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta to the water and cook until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and lightly grease a 9x13 or similar baking dish.
- Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or similar large, deep pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until beginning to soften, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and garlic, then cook whisking often, until the flour is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Gradually pour in milk, whisking constantly, then the half and half. Continue to cook until the sauce simmers and thickens, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat, then stir in the salt and nutmeg, then the Greek yogurt, cheddar, and 1/2 the total amount of sage. Add the drained pasta, apples and ham, toss gently to coat, then transfer to the prepared baking dish.
- Combine the bread crumbs and olive oil in a small bowl and sprinkle over the top of the pasta. Cover the dish with foil, then bake for 10 minutes covered, then uncover and bake 10 additional minutes, until the crumbs are golden and the pasta is hot and bubbly. If necessary, turn your broiler to high to finishing browning the crumbs, watching them carefully so that they do not burn. Remove baked pasta from the oven, sprinkle with remaining sage, and serve.
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