We have just had the first really cold snap of this winter, and it came with howling winds and snow. Needless to say, warming comfort food becomes the order of the day. A popular favourite is the ubiquitous “mac and cheese”. Funnily enough, this is a dish that rarely appeared on our family table – my father was not fond of sauces – a foundation of any good macaroni cheese. My husband, when I first met him, viewed macaroni cheese with great suspicion: his mother’s version, he says, was bullet proof!
Over the years, I have made various versions, partly because it’s an easy and warming meal to make, but because one can have too much of a good thing, I have at least three variations on this universal favourite…none of them actually with macaroni except, perhaps the last one….
All three of the variations have two things in common – pasta, obviously, and white sauce. The choice of pasta is personal and depends on the variation. The secret to a really flavourful white sauce with is to infuse the milk with a bay leaf, carrot, clove of garlic and a couple of peppercorns before making the sauce. This is much more easily done than on our mothers’ day: I usually take 250 – 500ml of milk, and add the bits I’ve mentioned and blast it in the microwave for one to two minutes and then leave it to infuse for a while. In case you need a reminder – white sauce is butter, melted, to which you add flour to make a roux; then add the warm milk and cook to the consistency you want, after which you add the cheese and other ingredients.
My take on the Brooklyn Diner’s Mac & Cheese
A few years ago, when I was in New York City for a conference, colleagues and I were cold and hungry after a day of site-seeing on a rainy Sunday in January. We needed supper and happened on the Brooklyn Diner, off Times Square. Although a lone South African among a group of Aussies, we had one thing in common: we didn’t like the cold and two of us, at least, just wanted the kind of food we could make at home – and there it was: Mac & Cheese! When it arrive, it wasn’t what we had expected: it didn’t look very appetising – tagliatelle smothered in the palest of creamy sauces, slopped on the plate. While they say you eat with your eyes, I have to tell you that this was the most delicious, pasta I had tasted in years – creamy, cheesy and tangy. And just what the doctor ordered. I have, since, managed to make my own version and there are two secrets: fresh, egg-rich pasta and the sauce that is made with whole milk, butter and at least three cheeses – and hot English Mustard.
Through a process of trial and error, I have worked out that the best cheeses to use for this dish are cottage cheese, a really mature, tangy cheddar with some Parmesan to grate over the top. I have also found that if I use full cream yoghurt, it adds a certain depth and piquancy to the flavour. In terms of quantities, that’s a matter of taste, and how tangy you like the sauce which is also helped along with the addition of a quarter to a half teaspoon of hot English mustard powder. Make sure that the sauce is not too thick – you want it to coat the tagliatelle – this is a saucy meal that is not dry. Once you’ve done the white sauce, cook your pasta and then ensure that it is drained and then serve, generously coated in the rich, tangy, creamy cheese sauce – either with or without a salad.
Broccoli & Blue Mac & Cheese
This is a dish that I make with a cheddar cheese sauce and penne. The variation, here, is the broccoli and the blue cheese. The broccoli is broken into florets, steamed and then tossed with the pasta and cheese sauce. You can either pile all of this into a large dish so that people can help themselves or plate into individual bowls. Either way, the dishes are topped with a generous sprinkling of blue cheese. I like the Simonsberg Blue cheeses – they have a range of different “blues” to choose from.
Fiona’s “famous” baked mac & cheese
This is my “original” recipe and which I created before I happened on the Brooklyn Diner or invented Broccoli & Blue, and it includes white sauce and either farfalatte (bowties), penne or macaroni, depending on what’s in the cupboard. As with the other two, you need a good quantity of cheese sauce, but what makes this different is that I usually include chopped sautéed onion and sweet bell peppers (red and green), chopped bacon (optional) and a little garlic and some fresh oreganum. If I have onions in the garden, I skip the onion at this stage and use the green leaves.
So, to assemble this, cook the pasta according to the manufacturer’s instructions, drain and return to the pot; add the sautéed vegetables (and the fresh onion leaves if using) and then stir in the cheese sauce. Place all of this into a large oven proof dish and if you like, top with a layer of sliced tomatoes followed by a generous layer of cheese and a sprinkling of Parmesan which will give the top a lovely crunch. Place under the grill until golden brown and serve!
P S – The “famous” bit is because we have had spur-of-the-moment invitations to supper and taken this along and it turned into the hit of the evening….