Sometimes, I just want to eat steak. Or noodles. Or chicken soup. Or a bacon sandwich. Sometimes, even, a big plate of steamed veges with olive oil and lemon juice (but not that often).
All of these things could be loosely described as comfort food - they are things we eat that restore us, to reinvigorate us. But when it comes to comfort food, there is one thing that I reckon really takes the cake - an age-old staple, macaroni cheese. Mac 'n' cheese. Macaroni cheese. Or "M Cheese", as an old flatmate used to call it (it was the only thing he knew how to cook, and sometimes even then he used to pay another flatmate of ours to cook it for him when it was his turn to cook).
Mac cheese can be truly, wretchedly awful, make no mistake. It can have under, or over-cooked pasta. It can have too much gloopy, tasteless cheese sauce. Or not enough. But when it is done well, lemme tell ya - I swear there is almost nothing better. Food of the Gods, no less.
Like anything else, I guess, what makes a good mac'n'cheese is subjective. But these are the boxes that I like to see ticked off;
1. Pasta just the well-done side of al dente. It should still have a little bite to it, but not too much. You need to pre-cook it in plenty of salty water, until it is just the firm side of al dente, then finish it in the cheese sauce.
2. The cheese sauce should have plenty of flavour, which means, basically, plenty of cheese - I find it good to add some parmesan, or some (read; lots) aged cheddar (the Linkwater aged cheddar they have at Moore Wilsons is perfect). A little mustard will help stop it being bland. Season it properly with salt and pepper. And you must, must, must cook the flour out when making the roux! That raw flour taste overwhelms everything! And don't use low-fat milk, for heavens sake - who are you trying to fool?!
3. Use slightly more sauce than what you think it needs. The pasta will absorb it, as will the topping...
4. Grease the baking dish. It is much better if it comes away easily from the sides, and a bit of extra butter on the dish increases the chances of some crispy bits on the bottom (greasing it with bacon fat is a good idea, too...)
5. Don't get too foofy with it. I would find a little fried onion in the M cheese acceptable, or even some bacon at a push (bacon in anything is fairly acceptable), but don't go too nutso. Don't put capers, or olives, or anything like that in it - you're messing with a classic. I do, however, quite like some tomato on top - especially if you can get them to go oozy and sweet and break down a little - "umami".
6. Make a topping. Mix cheese, breadcrumbs, butter and seasoning - rub them all together and apply them liberally to the top of the dish. After you bake it, the extra sauce you used will bubble up around the edges and make delicious crunchy, gooey blobs of deliciousness with the cheesey, buttery topping.
7. Add some more cheese. Go on.
8. The ideal accompaniment would be a crisp, green salad - a light, fresh lemony or balsamic vinaigrette. O yeah!
These are my thoughts, then, on the humble macaroni cheese, M Cheese, mac 'n' cheese - whatever you want to call it. You will, doubtless, have your own preferences - please feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Mac 'n' cheese - are you partial? What is your technique - any key additions? Anywhere you know of that serves a good one?
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Mac cheese photo by Rick Audet