When Fiona threw down the cheese gauntlet with her Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge, I could not resist!
Macaroni cheese is a dish I adore and, like so many, have very fond childhood memories of. And yet, I hadn’t made it for years and years and years. What an oversight!
Such neglect meant I didn’t have the confidence to create my own original recipe. I thought about entering the best use of artisanal cheese category and popping down to Neal’s Yard Dairy for some Montgomery’s Cheddar or whatever else took my fancy, but I didn’t have time to schedule a visit. And I’m not well placed to suggest the best drink match, given that I enjoyed my macaroni cheese with a can of Coca Cola, though Pete said it went well with the Bergerac red he opened. So I guess I’m aiming for the most mouthwatering photo (or series of photos)!
What this means is that, for the first time ever, I tried to think ahead about how I wanted to photograph the ingredients and finished dish. My main photographic interests are travel and wildlife and I tend to shoot candidly, so working studio-style feels alien to me. Having long lusted over the magnificent photography on blogs such as La Tartine Gourmande, Matt Bites and What’s For Lunch, Honey? I knew I’d never match their skills with food styling and design. But instead of grabbing a couple of snapshots on the kitchen worktop as I usually do, for the first time ever I set up a makeshift table (on a cardboard box), chose and draped a new red travel towel as backdrop, thought a little about my choice of dishes and presentation and roped in my husband to hold an off-camera flash to the side for me whilst I took the photographs.
Of course, the other decision was which recipe to choose? For the last several days, Pete and I have been tidying the spare bedroom. This has been a week-long process because of my hoarding nature and our mutual hatred of house work; both of which had lead to a tottering mountain of boxes of stuff which we always intended to deal with shortly after boxing, but never did. In one, I found greetings cards from our wedding day (in 1994), in another we discovered work files from a job I barely remember and in yet another was a pile of Sainsbury’s and Waitrose Food Illustrated magazines from 1999 to 2001! Scouring through these magazines for “keeper” recipes (including a great one for chicken and garlic by Fiona herself) I found not one but two macaroni cheese recipes; I took this as a sign that I absolutely had to enter the challenge!
So I chose the Nigel Slater recipe I found in an old Sainsbury’s Magazine:
Nigel Slater’s Really Good Macaroni Cheese
350 grams macaroni (or any other short, hollow, dried pasta)
95 grams grated mature cheddar
1 litre milk
1-2 bay leaves
60 grams butter
60 grams flour
6 slices smoked streaky bacon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 handfuls fresh, white breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons grated parmesan
salt and pepper
Note: We used 150 grams of mature Cornish Davidstow cheddar. And as the milk we had in was fully skimmed, I sloshed in a little double cream that I had in the fridge. We opted for De Cecco tortiglioni instead of macaroni as I like large pasta tubes.
- Preheat oven to 400°C.
- Cook the pasta in boiling salted water till just tender.
- Grill the bacon until slightly crispy and cut into small pieces.
- Meanwhile, warm the milk in a saucepan with the bay leaves; turn it off as it comes to the boil.
- Melt the butter in another pan, add the flour and stir over a moderate heat until you have a smooth roux.
- Pour the hot milk into the roux and whisky to remove any lumps and then simmer, stirring regularly, until the sauce is the consistency of double cream.
- Stir the grated cheddar into the white sauce.
- Fold the drained pasta, bacon pieces and mustard into the cheese sauce, and then season to taste.
- Transfer the mixture into an ovenproof dish.
- Mix the breadcrumbs and grated parmesan and scatter over the pasta and sauce.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes.
After all that effort in planning, making and photographing, I was actually a little disappointed with the result! The flavour was really lovely, with the bacon and mustard complementing rather than overpowering the cheese, and the Davidstow providing a lovely rich flavour. But for me, the texture was too stodgy. Talking to Pete though, it seems it’s a matter of preference as he thought it was just as it should be! I realise I like mine to be much looser and saucier; essentially, I want the texture we had when we poured the pasta and sauce mixture into the baking dish.
Given that the mixture is hot when it goes into the baking dish, next time instead of baking it in the oven for half an hour, I’m going to pop it under the grill for a much shorter time. That should allow the breadcrumb topping to brown without drying out the pasta and sauce beneath.
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