Nigel Slater, in his 'Kitchen Diaries', cooks the way I'd like to: seasonally, spontaneously, depending on what he finds at the market or in his back garden. It always sounds so lovely and grown-up, and every now and then I manage it, but in reality I cook in one of two ways: I make the same thing over and over again, because I'm busy and it's easy, or I read a recipe in a magazine or cookbook or blog and am possessed by a sacred fire to make that thing, right now, whether or not strawberries are in season or I can buy duck breasts at my local supermarket. Sometimes I manage to curb this by bookmarking the recipe (my recipe books are full of brightly coloured flags, and I have thousands of recipes tagged on delicious). Other times nothing will put me off. This macaroni cheese was one of those times.
The first mac and cheese I ever made came from a recipe in (I think) an Australian magazine, and I can no longer find it. I know it involved gruyere, and was delicious, and I've mourned the loss of that recipe for approximately eight years. Like everyone else, I have made and loved Martha Stewart's crack and cheese, to which I always add caramelized onions. I don't think either of these is the perfect mac and cheese, and neither is this one, although all are fantastic and basically, if we were ever to pronounce one recipe perfect, we'd miss out on the fun of aiming for the ideal. Because there is an ideal, Platonic macaroni cheese out there somewhere, I'm sure of it.
This one is bloody good, though. I added caramelized onion to mine, with plenty to serve on the side, because everything tastes better with caramelized onion, especially creamy cheese and pasta. I also added sharp cheddar to bump up the cheese factor and, instead of breadcrumbs, used crumbs from these stilton biscuits. But only because I had them already. I didn't make them specially.
mustard and fontina macaroni cheese
adapted from Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries
2 tbsp olive oil
3/4 lb macaroni, penne, or other small pasta
5 cups half-and-half (or milk, or cream)
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup all-purpose (plain) flour
a dash of nutmeg
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
5oz Fontina cheese
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese
3 tsp grain mustard
1 1/2 cups fresh white breadcrumbs*
5 tbsp grated pecorino cheese
Set the oven to 200ºC/400ºF.
Slice the onion into very thin wedges. Warm olive oil in a skillet, add the onion, and cook, covered, over low heat, for at least 20 minutes. If the onion starts to brown too much, add more olive oil.
Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until it is almost tender, approximately 8 minutes. Take care not to overcook; the pasta will cook more in the oven. Drain immediately.
Meanwhile, warm the half-and-half in a saucepan with the bay leaves. When it comes to the boil, remove from the heat. Melt the butter in another pan. When it begins to bubble, add the flour and cook, stirring, over a moderate heat, until it is a pale paste. Gradually pour in the milk and whisk until smooth, then simmer over a low heat, stirring regularly, until slightly thickened.
Season the white sauce with pepper, salt, and a dash of nutmeg. Dice the cheeses and stir into the sauce along with the pasta and caramelized onion. Tip the mixture into the gratin dish. Toss the breadcrumbs with the grated pecorino and scatter over the top. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes.
* Or these stilton and cheddar drop biscuits, crumbled :)