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Pasta & cheese part 1: return of the mac(aroni)…

Mmmm, pasta and cheese. Such perfect bedfellows, and the basis for two of my most favourite, comforting and fail-safe meals. After all, it’s hard to beat the double whammy of carbs and dairy products on a cold day. As it feels like winter is knocking on the front door, it’s time to share them with you. this first one is easy, the next is even easier: so there’s no excuse not to try these out for yourself!

Here’s the first of these… it’s macaroni cheese. Perhaps not haute cuisine, but one of my all-time favourites. And to any of our North American readers, I apologise in advance to you: this is the exact opposite of a Kraft Dinner. Miss South was braver than I, and last year experienced boxed Kraft & Mac. Made from powdered cheese: two words which should never be used in the same sentence. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t a fan. I shuddered at the very thought of it… but then my macaroni cheese has become a signature, sloppy, safe dish; something I can always fall back on when feeling cold or blue. So it’s time to redress the balance and serve up some proper North/South mac!

Half-eaten macaroni cheese with tomatoes

Firstly, let’s drop the ‘and’. On this side of the pond, it’s always just been ‘macaroni cheese’. I was heartened to find it’s been a favourite in the UK since Victorian times, no doubt because it’s simple to make, and almost universally appealing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten macaroni any other way apart from with cheese. If ever there was a typecast pasta, it’s macaroni. Whole packs must sit at the back of the cupboard, dreaming of being partnered with a cacciatore or arrabbiata sauce. Macaroni wants to be treated like an adult, and I’d like to think I know how to show it a good, grown-up time. There must be something to this: over the years I’ve found none of my guests has turned down my offer of seconds. Or thirds, come to think of it…

So let’s start with the basics… you’ve got to make a white sauce. I’ve got a bit more classical in the last few years, making a proper béchamel by letting the warm milk infuse with a clove and bay-studded onion, before adding it to a roux of butter and flour. But you can keep it simple and just trickle the milk in gently once you’ve stirred the butter and flour together into a smooth paste. The secret is to keep stirring at all times… I’ve been known to walk around the kitchen, stirring the pan as I go, just to keep everything perfect. This might seem excessive (or obsessive), but this is the cornerstone to the whole dish: a superbly glossy, silky, smooth and savoury sauce. And, if like me, you learn how to make this most classic kitchen sauces as a by-product of knocking up a bit of dirty comfort food, all the better. Without a badass sauce of the right consistency, this dish fails, so give it some love and attention. Once you’re confident in doing it properly, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes shut.

Three cheeses for macaroni

Obviously cheese is the other fundamental to this dish. Apart from the time, still celebrated in our family lore, when our dad managed to omit it altogether (cue whole family confusedly chewing pasta in white sauce, waiting in vain for the flavour to kick in). Generally our mum used to make a killer macaroni cheese, always using mature cheddar to up the umami stakes, giving every bite a good savoury tang. I used to do the same, but over time have settled on a broader range of complimentary flavours. So now you’ll find the sweet nuttiness of Parmesan paired with the kind of tangy Cheddar which makes one’s mouth pucker involuntarily, and a creamily lactic Lancashire to soften everything out. Sometimes a wee bit of pecorino will get added instead of the Parmigiano, or I’ll substitute some local Pike’s Delight for the normal mature cheddar; but the rich elegance of the sauce is best based on a range of cheeses. After all this lactic love, I tend to go heavy on the quantities. My rule of thumb is to grate a bowlful of roughly the same volume of cheese as the volume of dry pasta I’m going to use. Seems like a lot, but you need a decent amount for the topping. As the cheese gets stirred slowly into the béchamel, it’s time to get the macaroni going in a pot of boiling water. Drop in, return to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Once you’ve added a good proportion of the cheese (perhaps three quarters of the bowl), and the consistency of the sauce is like a thick custard, it’s time to season. If I was a purist, like the excellent Simon Hopkinson, I’d insist on using white pepper to keep the delicate shade of the béchamel consistent. However I normally add a tablespoon or so of wholegrain mustard at this stage, so some freshly ground black pepper just adds to the speckled appearance, and gives a touch more warmth to the dish. Taste will tell what’s right for you… I like it with a decent amount of poke. A few minutes stirring, ensuring the sauce is rich, flavoursome and thick, and the pasta should be about ready. For God’s sake, don’t overcook it: we’re finishing the dish off under the grill (and in a bed of molten sauce), so slightly al dente macaroni is better then flaccid and overdone any day.

Drained macaroni in colander

Drain the macaroni, take the sauce off the heat, and pour the pasta into an ovenproof dish. Slowly pour over the sauce, stirring well to ensure everything is coated properly, then finish the dish off with a generous topping of cheese. This’ll brown perfectly under the grill, adding a bit more bite and chew to the finished affair.

Mixing up the sauce with the macaroni

It was only a few years ago I weened myself off my childhood delight of a good squirt of Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup on my macaroni: as I was upping the ante with ever more posh ingredients. However our mum always used to put sliced tomatoes on the top to brown. I hated this at the time (sorry mum) but as I’ve got older, I’ve appreciated how the tart and sweet flavour of tomatoes complements the savoury nature of the cheese; so now I’m fully signed up to the tomato garnish. You can make the whole thing look as pretty or as lazy as you like, before bunging it under the grill/broiler until everything bubbles and browns, and you can’t resist any longer.

You’ll only need 25 minutes to knock this up; you can feel good as you’re applying some proper chef skills. Yes, the calorie count is on the high side, but this is winter comfort food, not something for a healthy regime. Don’t even think of skimping on the fat: skimmed milk or lo-fat cheese is wrong on so many levels, and just won’t deliver the big, warming flavours you want. I sometimes add a bit of double (heavy) cream to the sauce for a splash more decadence. Once you finish your portion (and seconds too, because this is one dish I can guarantee you’ll not be able to resist more of) you can always do something wholesome and virtuous, like taking a long walk in the park, or climbing a hill. You’ll be ready for anything. Except, perhaps, dessert.

Kraft Mac n’Cheese

I have long been a bit of an Americanophile with a particular penchant for American literature. Part of that fascination is to do with the descriptions of seemingly exotic sounding foods in these novels. To someone growing up in Ireland, corn dogs and crawdaddies held an almost magical fascination. So imagine my childlike glee when I espied a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in Brixton Market last weekend! I could finally try that most archetypal of American meals without the need for transatlantic travel…

Kraft Mac n’ Cheese or Kraft Dinner as it is also referred to, seems to be the thing that most of my American ex-pat friends crave the most outside the USA. They beg returning travellers to slip those familiar blue boxes in their luggage or pay ridiculous prices for it in Selfridges food hall. Their eyes glaze over with wistfulness when they mention it. How could I resist trying something so iconic?

So on a grey rainy Sunday evening, after a few cocktails the previous night, I decided it was time to try the ultimate comfort food and open that box of Kraft Dinner in time for Come Dine With Me. Firstly, I was alarmed to see that since the macaroni and cheese sauce are separately packed, you have to make the entire 3 serving box in its entirety. Even as a great lover of macaroni cheese that seemed excessive.

Secondly, the macaroni seemed to stick together the instant I added it to the boiling water and no amount of stirring seemed to help. Thirdly, while my pasta lump was cooking, I was horrified to see that the serving instruction was to use 4 tablespoons of margarine to make the cheese sauce. For a real butter lover those instructions felt like sacrilege. I was slightly relieved to see that the ‘Light Prep’ involved 2 teaspoons of butter and the same amount of fat free milk. Pondering why anyone would willingly add that much margarine to anything, I drained the macaroni.

Thanks to having to stir it to try and break up the unappealing lump it had formed, I haven’t seen macaroni this gluey since I last made art in kindergarten class. Obeying the express instruction not to rinse it took every ounce of my willpower. Instead it lay draining in the colander looking wan and quivering like a recently unearthed brain. I hoped the cheese sauce would salvage it…

I added a 1/4 cup of semi skimmed milk to the pan along with a lump of salted butter and opened the foil sachet of cheese sauce powder. Believe me when I say the last time I saw anything that unnaturally lurid in colour, it was being worn by a eager young thing en route to a Nu Rave night. Luckily stirring it into the milk and butter rendered it normal enough coloured to consider eating and it looked almost palatable by the time the macaroni was stirred in.

I was too shocked to take a good photo...

I put the whole mountain of mac n’ cheese in a bowl and added some black pepper for extra favour. I was slightly concerned to see that by the time I had sat down to eat, it had begun to congeal slightly in the bowl, adding an extra dimension of unappealingness to it all.

Undaunted, I dug into the dish, only to discover it looks better than it tastes. I’d say it tasted like sick, but at least sick has a definable flavour. This was offensive in its sheer blandness. It didn’t even taste of salt, let alone cheese. The macaroni was limp and wet with absolutely no texture or bite while the sauce was just tasteless with a unpleasant hint of oiliness. The whole thing was simply like milky semi digested pap. By the time the good folk of Come Dine With Me had reached their first starter, I had had enough.

Having tasted this dreck, I cannot imagine how miserable you must be feeling for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to classify as comfort food. Everything about it is an insult to the real thing. Any craving for processed cheese I had after reading this paean to it has been obliterated. After this crushing disappointment I doubt I will ever risk trying an egg cream or a funnel cake in the future. I’m not sure I could take the shattering of another childhood dream after this debacle!