I have a confession to make. Until last week I had never made macaroni and cheese. Not ever. Perhaps because the go to pasta dish in our house has always been pasticcio; a deliciously molten mass of baked pasta, bolognaise, bechamel sauce and cheese. That said, I’ve always been aware that far, far away on the other side of the world, our American cousins have a patriotically fearsome obsession for good old mac ‘n’ cheese. Some would even go so far to say it’s a national dish. The ultimate childhood comfort food.
Legend has it that good old mac and cheese was introduced to the nation by founding father Thomas Jefferson. He’s famously attributed with returning home from a sojourn in Europe with a wheel of parmesan cheese and an Italian pasta machine, sometime in the latter part of the eighteenth century. I rather like this romantic notion and after a little research think there may well be some truth in this tale.
Those who know me well, are also well aware I have a fascination with word associations and history. Consider this. Whilst it’s common knowledge that ‘macaroni’ is a variety of Italian pasta, less well known and quite obscure is the following fun fact. In eighteenth century Britain “macaroni” was also used as a reference to young aristocratic gentlemen returning from their grand tours with a fascination of all things European; in particular food (pasta) and fashion. More aptly used to describe the coterie of bright young things frequenting The Macaroni Club in London, famous for their outlandish dress, members fashionably donned striped silk cravats and feathers in their hats. Indeed, one could even go so far as to say “macaronis” were considered the metrosexuals of their time.
Here’s more food for thought, excuse the pun. Is it mere co-incidence that the well known rhyme of the 1780’s Yankee Doodle Dandy opens with the following verse:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.
But I digress. In seeking out a fabulous recipe for my inaugural attempt at macaroni cheese, I stumbled across Curtis Stone’s excellent Mac and Cheese with Gruyere, Cheddar, and Bacon. As Curtis puts it – “How do you make the world’s best mac and cheese? I think that the combination of Cheddar and Gruyere cheese puts this one over the top”. I couldn’t agree more. Here is my version, cobbled together with the contents of my pantry and fridge. Unequivocably inspired by Curtis, a much loved Aussie expat cooking up a storm in the United States. Laden with three types of cheese, butter, milk and cream its exceedingly naughty but incredibly delicious. There’s method in my madness. Fearing lack of self control I’ve baked my mac and cheese in individual ramekins. The challenge, should you choose to accept it,is to stop at just one.
Individual Mac And Cheese With Panko Crumb
Inspired by What’s For Dinner by Curtis Stone
500g box dried macaroni
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 leek, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 tablespoons plain flour
3 cups (750 ml) milk
1 carton (300ml) cream
1 1/2 cups (180g) Gruyere Cheese, grated
1 1/2 cups (180g) Cheddar Cheese, grated
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 kernel freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
16 (180g) long, very thinly sliced strips pancetta
For the Panko Crumb
2 tablespoons melted butter
2/3 cup Japanese panko crumbs (or substitute regular breadcrumbs)
1/3 cup of Parmesan Cheese, freshly grated
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
HEAT oil and butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat.
ADD leek with a generous pinch of sea salt. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until translucent, then add garlic and sauté for a minute until fragrant. Do not allow the garlic to brown or burn.
REDUCE heat to medium-low, whisk in flour, and cook, whisking, for a minute or teo. Gradually whisk in the milk and cream, then bring the sauce to a gentle simmer over medium heat and simmer gently for a further 10 minutes.
GRADUALLY whisk in Gruyere and Cheddar cheeses with mustard. Remove saucepan from heat and season cheese sauce to taste with freshly grated nutmeg, sea salt and pepper. The sauce will seem loose but will continue to thicken once the pasta is added.Set aside.
MEANWHILE bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil over high heat. Stir in tmacaroni and cook, stirring often to prevent it from sticking together, for about 8 minutes, or until tender but still firm to the bite. Drain well.
STIR macaroni into the hot cheese sauce. If the sauce begins to thicken too much add more milk or cream to thin it to the desired consistency.Season to taste again with sea salt and pepper. Stir through two tablespoons chives. Set aside.
PREHEAT oven to 180 C. Butter 8 ramekins.
ARRANGE two strips of pancetta in a criss cross fashion over the base of each ramekin. Fill each ramekin with macaroni cheese.
IN A SMALL bowl, toss together panko crumbs, grated parmesan cheese, chives, and melted butter. Season with sea salt and sprinkle evenly over macaroni cheese.
PLACE filled ramekins in hot oven and bake for 30 minutes until the topping is golden and macaroni cheese bubbling. Allow to stand at room temperature for 5 minutes before serving.