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!
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.
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.
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.
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.