When I was at university one of my best friends was a strange kind of fanatic of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. When he volunteered to provide the food for our monthly dormitory meetings not even his staunchest friends would show up because we knew what to expect. Tom took the neon-orange processed macaroni & cheese one stingy step further than its usual nastiness: he refused to use any milk in making it, resulting it bright orange clumps of "cheese" powder in a clumpy mess of pasta. Ick. Even the potheads wouldn't eat it.
For my own part, I had a macaroni & cheese obsession too, but it was with the Stouffers frozen version that you could pop in the microwave. It would come out bubbly and creamy with a crisp browned cheese edge. Still, somewhere in my heart of hearts I knew it wasn't the real thing. There was a better macaroni and cheese out there somewhere.
When I moved to Europe, I no longer had access to either the Kraft (whew!) or the Stouffers version of macaroni and cheese and so I started to experiment on my own. I started with the Fannie Farmer version (that old standby) and found it to be bland, bland, bland. Over the years, I've improved on the base recipe until I arrived at a place where I have a big thick chunk of cheesy goodness, crusty on the outside and creamy on the inside. It's the ultimate comfort food and a true indulgence. I make it on cold nights when my husband is away and I know I can nibble away at it uninterrupted. I usually make enough "for two" and then spend the rest of the evening sneaking into the kitchen to hack off another bite until there is none left and I'm afraid to confront the kitchen scale in the morning.
Macaroni & Cheese the Meg Way
175g (about a cup and a half) dried macaroni
30g (about 1/4 cup) butter plus a Tbs more
30g (ditto) flour
215g (about 2 cups grated) very sharp cheddar cheese (the sharper the better)
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
2 slices of proscuitto or other delicate ham
optional: mustard powder
Drop the macaroni in a pot of boiling water. While it is cooking (follow the instructions on the package as to timing, as it can vary) begin the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add the flour and stir well until it turns nutty brown. (Okay, yes, this is your basic bechamel sauce: if you already know this part just skip reading!) Slowly add the milk, whisking all the while to get a smooth sauce. I usually use a metal whisk and beat like mad because I'm too impatient to heat the milk first as you are supposed to do. It also makes cooking that little bit more interesting as you ride the edge of the crest, wondering if this is the time you'll fail to get those lumps out of the sauce. (Yes, that's rather pathetic.) Once the sauce is hot and lump-free start gradually adding the grated cheese, reserving about half a cup. The amount of cheese indicated above, by the way, is a bare minimum: the more you add, the more flavor. Flavor = good.
If you want to add some mustard powder, now is the time to do it. Personally, I don't find it necessary but to each his or her own. Tear the proscuitto in small pieces and stir it into the sauce. Add salt and pepper generously and taste to make sure you have enough. (Flavour = what?)
Remove the sauce from the fire. Take your little pan (ideally about 15cmx20cm and about 8 cm deep) and butter it well. Pour half the bread crumbs into the pan and tip them around, as if you were buttering and flouring a cake pan. This is my own innovation and I'm rather proud of it. Not only does it give a little more crunch to the edges of the macaroni and cheese but the pasta comes out cleanly, just like a cake. Magic!
Once the pasta is al dente, drain it well and mix it well with the cheese sauce. Pour into the bread-crumbed and buttered pan sprinkle the remaining cheese and then the remaining bread crumbs over the top and salt it again. Bake in a hot oven (200c/400f) until bubbly and crusty brown on the top.
Virtuously eat half with a nice green salad for dinner, telling yourself you'll reserve the rest for lunch the next day. Try to resist the second half for the rest of the evening.
Note: some might take exception to this definition of a "real" macaroni & cheese. The "real" macaroni and cheese is undoubtedly an authentic Italian dish made with loving care and full of flavour. What I have spent so many hours trying to achieve is the ultimate American comfort food, something that would remind you of your childhood but actually in some ways taste better. I'm not there yet on the apple crumble but I think I have the macaroni & cheese taped...