Macaroni Cheese

You’ll be laughing and telling me that no one needs a recipe to make macaroni cheese. But this is a special one! Somewhere between a liquid Japanese style one and my good old sliceable Luxembourg one. Oh, and I’m actually lying, it’s not macaroni at all, but penne. Reason being that I had a lot of penne in the pantry (which is really the wet kitchen part of the kitchen). So instead of going to buy more dry pasta, i.e. macaroni, I decided to save the world and use the existing penne instead.

Don’t be daunted by the long list of ingredients. It’s mostly stuff to flavour your custard mix with. I say custard, because that’s really what it is; a savoury custard held together by pasta. I have used pancetta for this, but if you are non-porky, or non-meaty, you could use the ever useful smoked salmon, or even fine diced portobello mushrooms tossed in a bit of garlic. In fact even if you leave the meat/fish/mushroom part out altogether, it will still be perfectly delicious. If you’re vegan, I can’t help you as far as this recipe is concerned.

The question of whether macaroni & cheese is Italian or not really depends on your definition of macaroni cheese. I believe the current version was popularised by The Kraft Cheese Company (Kraft and Cheese being a contradiction in terms), but a pasta and cheese casserole type dish was first mentioned in 14th century in the Italian cookbook, Liber de Coquina and in the English cookbook The Forme of Cury (?!) all of which I have learnt from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macaroni_and_cheese, which as so often provides a truly interesting read.

A Macaroni Cheese that is really a Penne al Forno

If you look closely you will see that there are actually 2 different types of penne. As I said, it’s from the bottom of the cupboard.
  • 400g penne
  • 600ml cream
  • 400ml milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 thick slices of pancetta (about 4mm each)
  • 1 brown onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed and roughly chopped
  • 1 sprig sage
  • 3 sprigs thyme
  • 1 small sprig rosemary
  • 1 large bay leaf
  • white pepper (black if you prefer)
  • 25g butter, plus extra for buttering the dish
  • 80g Emmenthal cheese
  • 80g Gruyere cheese
  • 5 Tbsp breadcrumbs

A word about quantities; I used an oval ovenproof dish that holds about 2 litres, so the quantities are just right for that dish. There is an easy way to find out how much pasta and sauce you are going to need: Fill the dish you are planning to use halfway full of dry pasta. That’s what you will need. Now fill the dish with water and measure that. Divide by two and that’s the amount of cream/milk mix you will need. And if like me you hate the idea of throwing perfectly good water away, use the measuring water to boil your pasta.

The main difference between my mac&cheese and most others is that I flavour the custard mix before I start. I find it gives so much more depth of flavour that it is really worth the bother: Chop the onion and the garlic roughly, melt a knob of butter in a saucepan big enough to hold the milk and cream and fry on medium heat until the onions are translucent. This will take about ten minutes. If you are scared the garlic might brown or burn, add it a little later, but make sure all the sharp garlic smell is gone. What you are looking for is that creamy roast garlic flavour, not sharpness.

Now pour the cream and milk into the saucepan, add the sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and white pepper and bring to just about boiling point. Salt lightly, turn off the heat and leave to infuse while you do the rest of the stuff.

Heat a large pot of water, salt is with about a tablespoon of sea salt and boil your penne in it until just slightly undercooked. Drain and spread on a large baking tray in a single layer. Put it under the aircon to cool quickly. Do NOT wash it in running water, we want all the starch that is on the pasta.

Slice the pancetta into lardons and quickly fry it in a little olive oil. Don’t let it crisp up, so once you hear the first crackling sound, turn off the heat. Grate both cheeses and mix them together. Butter your dish generously.

Beat the eggs lightly, check that your milk/cream mix isn’t hot anymore and stir the eggs into it. Now strain the whole thing into a jug, which will make for easy pouring later. I like to add the eggs before straining because it makes for a smoother mix.

Divide your penne roughly into three and put one third at the bottom of your dish. Try to get it spread out as evenly as you can. Scatter about a little less than a third of the cheese over the pasta, then scatter half the fried pancetta over. Now pour enough custard mix to wet the pasta thoroughly without drowning it. Repeat with the next third of the penne, using up the rest of the pancetta. You won’t need any for the top layer. Finish with another layer of pasta and cheese, the pour the rest of the cream mix over it. Press down gently to make sure all the penne are coated with the mix. Now sprinkle the breadcrumbs over and dot with the butter.

I am supposed to have some nice pictures of all the stages of filling the tray with the penne and the pouring of the cream, etc. but I ended up rushing and then forgot. You could assemble the dish an hour or two before baking it, but the texture of the penne will suffer, so it really is best to do it last minute. Unless you are very organised and chill the penne and custard thoroughly in the fridge, quickly assemble and then return the dish to the chiller, then top it with breadcrumbs just before you shove it into the oven. That will work, but you will need to add 10 extra minutes to your baking time.

Bake at 180ºC for about 30 minutes. You should see the mix bubbling at the side. Turn on the grill to get a nice crust on top, but try not to burn the thing. Take out of the oven and leave to rest for 10 minutes before serving. I find that the flavour is much better if it is not scorching hot. But then I think the same about soups and for some people heat is the all important factor.

I am going to try and do a version of this dish in which you do not need to boil the pasta! A kind of “TV Dinner” Macaroni Cheese, so give me a while to experiment and come up with a workable system. We’ll talk again…

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