No meal in the world comforts me as much as a gloopy, bubbling Macaroni cheese. If I see it on a menu, it’s inevitable that I’ll order it. I’ve had my fair share of disappointments – the too-dry, the overly flaccid, the barely cheesy – but when someone gets it right, it is pure heaven.
For me the perfect mac ‘n’ cheese is as follows: the macaroni is put into the sauce when overly al dente, so it can withstand the oven without turning to mush. The sauce is plentiful and supremely cheesy – the more pungent and umami-packed the better, but there should be a piquant hint of mustard in there too. Ideally the mac ‘n’ cheese should be so cheese-packed you barely notice the sauce is built on a béchamel base – each forkful should be slightly stringy – and the top should be bronzed, crunchy and if possible sprinkled with crispy bacon. A few jalapenos don’t go amiss either.
My mac ‘n’ cheese hunt has gone on for years but only a handful stay in my memory. High on the list is the meltingly good offering in Spuntino, London. After that comes a bit of a curve-ball (and I am stretching the definition of mac ‘n’ cheese here): a mushroom macaroni dish served in The Hind’s Head in Bray. I have messed around with mac ‘n’ mushrooms ever since but never nailed its funky intensity. Also memorable – though I suspect feeling cold and wet adds to its charm – is the offering from the mac ‘n’ cheese stall that has been at every UK festival I have ever attended, cooked up in front of you on the hob. It’s an ingenious way to turn it into a one-pot dish, and it swallows up copious amounts of cheese as it is stirred, tantalisingly, in front of the starving campers. The toppings (yes, bacon and jalapenos are options) are well thought out and give the added crunch and richness that might otherwise come from a spell in the oven.
When I cook it at home, I vary the cheeses but favour either a good, honest Cheddar (as mature as you can get) or a mix of Cheddar, Parmesan and Mozzarella (which adds a nice glossy stringiness to the texture).
I have only rough ideas about quantities but wanted to share with you a sketch of a recipe that works, with a few little extra ingredients I have added over the years to intensify the flavour.
- Cook up your macaroni or other pasta tubes in salted water until just softening. Don’t worry if it still has too much bite – this will go once in the oven (while you’re at it, pre-heat the oven). In terms of quantities, I trend to measure how much I need by slightly-less-than-half filling my lasagne dish with dry macaroni.
- Make a vat load of béchamel sauce, adding a bay leaf and an onion studded with a couple of cloves to the milk as you heat it. I tend to use four pints of milk to make one lasagne dish of macaroni cheese – although this allows some sauce left over for a pasta bake the next day.
- Grate equally copious amounts of cheese – I favour at least one large block of the strongest Cheddar I can get, plus a pot of grated Parmesan and a small bag of grated mozzarella.
- Let the béchamel cool slightly then stir in the cheese. (Letting the sauce cool a bit seems to cut the chance of the cheese separating.) Put the heat back on for a while if some of it refuses to melt.
- Stir in the following umami wonders, checking the taste then adding more until happy: tamari soy sauce, mustard (ideally Colman’s but any smooth mustard will do); and a teaspoon or two of mushroom ketchup.
- Combine the pasta and sauce in a lasagne dish. Put in what looks like too much sauce in relation to pasta, as it will dry out considerably while cooking.
- Top with breadcrumbs (panko are crunchiest) and grated cheese then put in the oven for about half an hour.
- Meanwhile put a tray of bacon rashers (one pack will do) into the oven and cook until dry and crisp.
- Remove the bacon and once it’s cool enough to handle, cut it into little pieces.
- Remove the Mac ‘n’ cheese and top with the bacon… and serve.
If you try this, let me know how you get on. I hope it goes well!