On paper, mac and cheese has all the requisites to be one of my favourite things (virtually devoid of nutritional value, a triumph of carbs, CHEESE); in reality, we have a complicated history.
There are two main factors at play here: one, that with a few exceptions, I’m not a huge fan of melted cheese. If you are gasping because you have seen me consume a whole baked camembert for dinner (Hi, everyone I’ve ever lived with between the ages of 19 and 24), my issue is not with the melted cheese per se, but with the flavour and texture of hardened cheese as it starts to congeal. It loses its silky mellowness; it develops an unpleasant harshness and chewiness; the fats gently ooze as they splits from the solids.
Two, probably lack of trying. Mac and cheese is rarely the most attractive thing on a menu. It’s a promise of heavy same-ness spiked with all sorts of crunchy bits in pursuit of the elusive texture contrast: crispy bacon, breadcrumbs, wilted green onion. I’ve had it in pubs, mainly in an attempt to quickly sober up at someone’s leaving drinks (if you’ve had a couple of drinks, it works. If it’s over three glasses of the acrid teeth-staining house red, good luck to you). As an office party catering staple, I have eaten it from comically small cups while doing exhausting amounts of small talk. When it looked good, all gloopy and bright yellow, I have sometimes stolen a bite from someone else’s bowl.
Indifference turned to animosity or even outright aggression when it tried to kill me. It was my birthday, my twenty-fifth birthday to be exact, quarter of a century and all, and I ordered mac and cheese in a Scottish restaurant. The pasta-and-cheese blob was covered in fine breadcrumbs, which I proceeded to inhale while taking the first bite. The ordeal resulted in a spectacle of choking and coughing up pasta with an audience of concerned patrons.
I then decided that mac and cheese was not for me. When a recipe comes up in one of the many, many food podcasts bar channels bar show I follow, I simply smirk while white-clad chefs melt seven types of cheese into double cream, an action in itself which makes me feel very protective of my arteries.
But then something happened. It was a happy accident. I was asked to bring something to something to a party and I made Italian rustici, essentially the ultimate potluck cop-out, little savoury pastries which allow you to buy some puff pasty and slap a little tomato paste on it and call it a “mini pizza” (they are really quite delicious). So there I was, making bechamel and ham rustici late at night, when I am most prone to impulsive bad decision-making. I decided to dump my leftover cheddar to the bechamel, turning it into an accidental cheese sauce. Made too much, of course, because I always make too much, and decided to have the leftover as pasta sauce, half-expecting it to be one of those “shit I eat when I’m by myself” dinners.
And instead, the miracle. I had made mac and cheese. I had made the mac and cheese I had always wanted to eat. Delicate, milky, just-cheesy, not stringy or gooey but silky, an innocently pale sauce coating every bit of pasta, a bowl of velvety baby food, basically.
And it’s so, so easy. Bechamel may sound a little intimidating but if you have a whisk, you are essentially good to go. There are no add-ins or toppings, although that should by no means limit your imagination. No oven time to dry out the cheese. No crust, because not everything needs a crust – think of it like a risotto of sort, but far milkier and creamier. Two types of cheese, the kinds I am most likely to keep in my fridge, which can absolutely be swapped for any other cheese. Two pots. So low maintenance it can be made while engrossed in a really good podcast (how good is the Dropout?).
Mac and cheese
(serves 4 hungry people, or 5 reasonable people)
50g of flour
50g of salted butter
one pint of whole milk
some spices (in my case: half a teaspoon of cayenne, two teaspoons of mustard powder, a teaspoon of nutmeg, some pepper)
100g of cheese, grated. You want something that melts easily and has a little sharpness, because the sauce is so mellow. I did 70g of mature cheddar, 30g of parmesan)
500g pasta (any shape you would like, although I like to go for fun ones, like gemelli or radiatori)
In a large saucepan, bring some water to the boil.
In a saucepan, melt the butter. Once melted, add the flour and whisk together to form a paste. Let this cook for 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Then add the milk (cold is fine), a little at a time at first until incorporated. Whisk continuously to ensure there are no lumps. Once all the milk is in, add a pinch of salt and your preferred spices. Continue whisking while the milk mixture returns to a simmer; it will then start thickening up. Taste it: this is the perfect time to add more salt, more pepper, more cayenne. The sauce will become creamy enough to coat the back of a spoon; once it gets there, remove the pot off the heat and stir in the grated cheese, a little at a time, until melted and incorporated.
Cook the pasta until it’s al dente. Once ready, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta into the cheese sauce pot, and mix to coat evenly.