This is one of my all-time favourite recipes, and I think it’s one of the very first that I wrote and photographed for my cookbook Friends, Food, Family: Recipes and Secrets from LibertyLondonGirl. As it’s Thanksgiving tomorrow, and I know lots of my American friends love mac’n’cheese as a side, I asked my publishers, Quadrille, if I could extract this recipe from the book to run here on LLG. Happily they said yes! I’ve also added some of the photos from the recipe shoot that didn’t make it into the book – one of the bonuses of shooting your own cookbook.
We ate a lot of macaroni cheese as children, and I think it is now hard wired into my brain as the ultimate comfort food. Whilst we often had variations, maybe Sunday’s roast beef leftovers minced on Monday and layered over the pasta, or a layer of buttery fried breadcrumbs added to the grated cheese topping, it is the simple version to which I always return, seduced by the silken smooth sauce, powerful cheese hit, and tummy-filling goodness.
I’ve never really understood the approach that sees the traditional béchamel replaced by a mixture of cheeses, even God forbid, cottage cheese. Use too much cheese and the mixture goes grainy, often separating to leave a film of orange oil on top of the pasta.
My special ingredient is Dijon mustard: the kick enhances the cheese flavour beautifully, without tasting, well, mustardy, and it also serves to help thicken the sauce too. I also find that it slightly lessens the amount of cheese that you need to use, as it adds so much rich flavour.
On that note, be careful not to over thicken the sauce before you add the pasta, as the macaroni will absorb some of the liquid when it is flashed under the grill to melt the cheese topping and you will end up with claggy macaroni cheese – the cardinal sin.
To serve six people (it is very rich)
250 grams Cheddar cheese plus 150gms for the topping
350 grams Macaroni
1 litre whole fat milk
50 grams flour
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard – as you know, I love Moutarde de Maille!
45 grams butter
(I apologise for it being metric – I haven’t tested it yet in cups for the US version.)
Grate the Cheddar for the sauce and for the topping, separately. I use the grating attachment on my food processor, but you can equally do this by hand. (I tend to keep bags of grated odds and ends of cheese in the freezer, and add this straight to the sauce without defrosting.)
Cook the macaroni in plenty of boiling water according to packet instructions – usually about eight minutes. After the pasta is drained, pour over a kettle of boiling water to rinse off some of the starch, as this helps reduce the risk of unpleasant clagginess.
Meanwhile, melt the butter until it sizzles, and sift in the flour – do sift, as it helps avoid lumps. Stir together rapidly, until a smooth paste is achieved. Then, start to add the milk. I like to start with about 150ml, just to get the sauce going. When that is mixed together, add about 250ml, whisk this together, being sure to
scrape the corners of the pan, where the paste congregates. When it has started to thicken, add another big slosh of milk, and vigorously whisk together.
Add the mustard, which you will find helps the thickening process, and whisk.
Continue until all the milk has been added. (I like to add the milk in increments as I find it thickens quicker this way, and there is less likelihood of the sauce catching.)
Add the 250gm cheese, and beat into the sauce with a wooden spoon.
Turn on the grill to medium-high.
When the sauce is thick, but still slightly runny, tip in the pasta, and stir carefully together.
You can either serve this in one big dish, or in individual ones. I find it fills about six small pots.
Strew the grated cheese over the top, and place under the grill for about 5-10 minutes until the top is golden and bubbling. Do keep an eye on it, as it can burn in an instant.
If you like, a few sliced tomatoes on the top before it goes under the grill can be
very nice. Serve with a green salad.