As promised in last week’s edition, I have been getting elbow deep in mac’n’cheese this week to bring you a pasta dish so rich, decadent and delectable that you will not be able to stop making it. Or at least that is the plan. As a comfort food hero, macaroni cheese’s perfection lies largely in its similarity to the one you ate as a child on a Friday night with The Simpsons and Robot Wars on BBC Two (those were the days). So we will attempt to make that one today, with a few helpful pointers as to how you can make it rather more grown up (or like ‘Crack and Cheese’, as America’s own domestic goddess Martha Stewart puts it).
Let us start with some basic principles. Macaroni cheese is a dish of grilled macaroni, enveloped in an unctuous cheese sauce. To succeed we need a killer cheese sauce, with lots of depth of flavour and the perfect consistency.
Start with 25 grams of butter, allow it to melt and just start to foam. Now you should whisk in 25 grams of plain flour until it is well incorporated. You must leave it on the heat for 45 seconds to go golden-brown. Otherwise the sauce will taste of raw flour. Now start whisking up to 400ml milk. The trick is to do small amounts at a time and to keep stirring constantly. The sauce will thicken. It is a hard thing to judge, but 400ml of milk should be more than enough cheese sauce for one serving of macaroni cheese, perhaps with some left over for another day. If it has gone horribly wrong and is really lumpy, strain it through a sieve into a fresh pan (you can use the pan and the sieve for the mac and save on washing up!).
When the sauce is thick, add your cheese. Which cheese, you ask? Well, it is up to you entirely; however, the most authentically nostalgic version uses mature cheddar. Red leicester adds a great colour; parmesan or goat’s cheese adds a great saltiness and depth of flavour. Comté, gruyère or gouda all go nice and stringy. Two handfuls of any combination of those cheeses will be plenty, but you can go as far as you want. Stir it in with a good pinch of salt and pepper, and (curveball coming, look out) some smoked paprika or nutmeg.
Whilst this is all hubbling and bubbling, get a pan of salted boiling water on the go. 80-100 grams of macaroni will be plenty. Cook it to packet instructions, until al dente. Mix it into the sauce and place into an ovenproof dish. Cover with more cheddar and grill very quickly, till it is bubbling and browning and looking gorgeous. Take it out of the grill, dish it out, and enjoy.
There should be a satisfying, unctuous, squelchy sound when you serve it! I love a swirl of olive oil and a ripping of basil leaves, but maybe that is just me.
How do you take it even further? My former head chef’s mac’n’cheese had bacon lardons and chopped mushrooms folded through it, and it remains the best mac’n’cheese I have ever tasted. I have had it with fried breadcrumbs on top, similarly delicious. Little tears of mozzarella folded through the mix before it is grilled… forget about it, it will have you in cheesy tears. You can substitute the milk in the sauce for ale, and… Wow. Why not stir in some frozen peas or sautéed spinach? Grilled tomatoes on the side? Fantastic.
Do I sound crazy for macaroni cheese? I am! Have I eaten too much of it this week? I have!
Image: Flickr: [Vancouver Bites!]