Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge!

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.

Click on the images to view larger versions.


Anonymous said...

nice pics!

Ruth Noble said...

I usually add spring onions to mine (but don't bother with baking it as am impatient and also favour a looser sauce!)
Sundried or sunblush tomatoes would make a great alternative to the bacon - my (meat-eating) husband loves them in a carbonara :)

Tom said...

MMMMMMM I am going to have to make this.... Mac&Cheese is the ultimate comfort food!

Elizabeth said...

beautiful photos and mouthwatering food!

Lizzie said...

I once made a macaroni cheese and folded in whisked egg whites, leftover from making mayonnaise, which made it a lot lighter. Perhaps the stodge was down to using larger pasta shapes?

Kavey said...

Thanks Lizzie, could be, though I think it's more just the extra cooking time... I want to try it with less cooking after making the sauce...

Heavenly Housewife said...

Sorry it didn't live up to your expectations. Still, it does look delicious. I made macaroni for the first time last year, hubby wasn't that impressed with my efforts LOL, haven't tried it again yet.

Winton said...

I'd temporarily forgotten about good old macaroni cheese, very comforting.
As I remember it always needed a lot of seasoning (despite using a strong cheddar and mustard.) I used to put slices of tomato on the top to give the dish a bit of colour.

Sarah, Maison Cupcake said...

My favourite macaroni cheese is the Nigella Express one using evaporated milk and grated cheese. You don't have to make separate sauce and it's very tasty. I like you putting bacon in it.

Pete Favelle said...

Looks yummilicious

Mamta said...

Your pictures look lovely Kav, I wish I could take pictures like that! It looks sooooooooo delicious. I will try adding bread crumbs next time, I bet they make the topping nice.
I too add mustard, if you remember from your childhood ;-)! Coleman's mustard powder is the one I use. I don't make a rue, it is much simpler that way and you reduce fat content because butter is not required. I have done it this way for a very long time. I also put a layer of sliced tomatoes before putting the cheese topping, so you have nicely grilled tomatoes at the top. And, we always eat it with Encona, HOT chilli sauce! I am only surprised it took you so long to make it, we still have it about once a fortnight!

Jeanne said...

Mmmmm, I have been seeing some killer mac & cheese around the interwebs, made for this challenge. Looks outstanding! If it's still in time for the deadline, I may have a go this weekend...

Maddox Kent said...

I shortcut the whole sauce thing - cook some pasta, grate some cheese, mix the cheese with some double cream, drain the pasta, dump in the cream and cheese and warm through stirring until melted. A cheat, possibly, but works!

Not Quite Nigella said...

Ahh it looks lovely but thanks for being so honest about the taste! It's great to know it before we attempt it :D

shayma said...

Kavey, I love how you said you had mac and cheese with a coca cola! i would do the same. i love your recipe, except i would have to omit the pork bit. sounds lovely, regardless. x shayma
ps i am still upset about the marriage proposals - youre casting your net too far and wide.

Ozoz said...

Super stunning photos Kavey....makes me want to get some mac and cheese tonight....after my dinner. Thanks

shayma said...

kaves, i did the RSS feeder thing you had been asking me for. x

Anonymous said...

Hi, just came across your post while fishing online for Nigel's recipe because my daughter has been begging for mac and cheese all week.

I just wanted to point out that you skipped over the part where one is to add the cheese!

Anyway, it's pretty obvious where to do that, but... well... you know...

Agreed with all the above, though: pictures look great!

Kavey said...

Oops, shall check and add it in, many thanks for your kind comment!