There are days when only comfort food will do. Last weekend, a combination of lingering hangover, horrible weather, and the signs of an imminent cold meant that I craved something warm, filling and nostalgic. This is the kind of situation best served by a carbohydrate overdose. And what better to accompany your carbs than a hot, cheesy sauce; macaroni cheese was required!
Anticipating my delicious sauce put thoughts in my head of similarly nostalgic dish from my childhood, cauliflower cheese, and, since I am incapable of making decisions when feeling sick, I decided to go with a mixture of both, making sure that all aspects of my inner child were happy. Feel free to stick to an unadulterated macaroni cheese if you prefer.
The sauce for this dish starts as a basic Béchamel, or white sauce, that is thickened with a roux (a French term for a paste made by combining melted butter and plain flour). Béchamel is often referred to as a 'mother' sauce because you can make lots of other 'daughter' sauces simply by adding one or two other ingredients to the basic recipe, in this case the addition of cheese turns it into Mornay sauce. Learning how to make this sauce is a great way to improve your culinary repertoire and it's far superior to the shop bought variety for making lasagnas. Infusing the milk may seem like an extraneous step but it's really worth it to add lots of flavour to the base of your sauce.
Macaroni Cheese (Serves 4)
300g macaroni (I used 200g macaroni and 100g small cauliflower florets, steamed for 5 minutes)
For the sauce:
30g plain flour
5 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 blade of mace
1 shallot, peeled and cut in half
1 sprig of parsley, stems included
200g of Comté or Gruyere, grated
A few drops of truffle oil if you want to make your macaroni posh (optional)
Leftover, shredded pork belly, or any leftover meat you want to use up (optional)
Pour the milk into a saucepan and add the peppercorns, bay, mace, shallot, clove and parsley. Bring to a simmer over a medium heat. As soon as the milk starts to simmer turn off the heat and leave to infuse for ten minutes. Put your macaroni on to boil and cook according to the packet instructions. Drain and toss with a small amount of olive oil to prevent it sticking together while you make your sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. When the butter has melted add the flour and stir well to combine, this is the roux. Cook the roux for two minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain the flavouring ingredients from the milk and then start to incorporate the milk into the roux, gradually at first to ensure you don't end up with lumpy sauce. When all the milk has been added keep mixing the sauce on medium heat until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Reserve a handful of cheese and add the rest to the sauce stirring well to ensure it melts. Add 3 drops of truffle oil to the sauce if you are using it. Put your macaroni (and cauliflower, if using) in an oven dish and pour the sauce over it. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top and bake in a 160°C fan oven for 20 minutes until the sauce is golden on top. Serve on it's own or with a simple salad. I had some pork belly leftover so I shredded what was left and fried it for a few minutes to crisp it up and added that to my macaroni as I was adding the sauce, you can add anything you like!
For the maximum comforting effect I recommend eating this on the couch, with a blanket to keep you toasty and your favourite tv programme on, that worked for me anyway!
|Top Right: Frying the pork belly. Top Left: Stirring the roux|
Centre: Before the macaroni went in the oven
Bottom Right: Flavouring ingredients for the Béchamel. Bottom Left: About to add the cheese to the sauce.