Return of the Mac

Fiona Beckett recently threw down the challenge to produce the ‘ultimate’ macaroni cheese. I think it’s fair to say I was up for that with bells on. My enthusiasm escalated to such lofty heights that I ended up producing a cheesy carbilicious beast of mammoth proportions; a behemoth capable of providing an extra  insulating layer around my ribs that would keep out the winter chills and probably stay put well into spring. It fed two of us twice a day for two days plus three men for dinner on a third.

Before Creation of course, there was only me. Me and my hungry brain trying to figure out what would make my ‘ultimate’ mac ‘n cheese. I dipped my toe into the idea of going down the purist route (read ‘no pork’), but I’ve learned not to try and trick my tastebuds for the sake of principle. Usually I use bacon, but this time I wanted to somehow gently infuse the porky flavour throughout the dish and hit on the idea of simmering a small ham hock to make stock before cooking the macaroni in the golden swiney liquor. Pasta cooked in ham stock. Yes. The meat I teased from the bone into silky pink nuggets; every now and then a porcine treasure bobbed up from the bubbling cheesy depths.

When it comes to the cheese, I’m a cheddar girl. Extra mature, naturally. A mac needs guts and only x-rated quantities of a well ripened cheddar can produce the tang I crave; melted into silky bechamel with a smidge of the Montgomery smoked to play off the pork, finished with a good shake of white pepper. I often prefer its sharp, ripe intensity over the black stuff; hugely underrated.

And finally to the crust. For me, it must be crisper than a  winter morning in Siberia and for this I could think of nothing more suitable than Japanese panko crumbs, mixed with yet more CHEESE.

Shattering crust, cheesy steam, rich, gooey pasta; sauce oozing through every tube. Crispy burnt edge bits tumble into soft, unctuous, silken stodge. How could I forget such a classic? The divine chorus of carb and dairy, singing to the tune of winter weight gain.

Mac ‘n Cheese for an Army

The quantities here got a bit out of hand so you might want to halve it! This filled a  14 x 12 x 3 inch dish if you want to feed your entire neighbourhood. Do the hock first, then while the pasta is cooking, make your cheesy sauce. If the pasta is done before the sauce, add a few drops of oil and stir to stop it sticking together.

For the hock

1 small ham hock
1 bay leaf
Six black peppercorns
A few parsley stalks
1 carrot, halved
1 stick celery, halved
1 onion, halved and stuck with a couple of cloves

Place the hock in a large pan and cover with water. Simmer for a few hours then strain into a bowl and reserve the stock for cooking the pasta. Flake the meat from the bone, taking care to avoid any bits of skin or sinew, chop into bite size chunks and reserve for mixing into the mac.

For the sauce

Triple this bechamel recipe, adding about 500g cheddar of your choice plus 150g smoked cheddar melted in at the end. Season with plenty of white pepper but no salt (the hock and cheese are both salty).

425ml milk
40g butter
20g plain flour
A swift grating of nutmeg (optional)
White pepper to taste

Melt the butter over a gentle heat and add the flour, stirring quite vigorously to make a paste. Let this cook for a few minutes, stirring vigorously the whole time. Begin adding the milk a little at a time, making sure each bit is incorporated fully before adding the next. Towards the end you can start pouring larger amounts in there. Add the nutmeg and cook over a low heat, stirring, for about 10-15 minutes. When it starts to thicken, add the cheese and allow it to melt. Season with the white pepper to taste. If you need to keep it to one side, cover with some greaseproof paper to stop a skin forming.

For the macaroni

700g dried macaroni

Cook the macaroni in the reserved ham stock, topping up with a little water if necessary.

For the topping

Panko breadcrumbs (enough to cover), mixed with a good couple of handfuls of grated cheddar. I grated a bit more on top and added a bit of parmesan too simply because I had it lying around but that’s optional.

Assembling and cooking the mac

Mix the sauce with the macaroni and ham hock pieces then check the seasoning before piling into a well buttered baking dish. Sprinkle on the crumb topping, grating on more cheese if desired. Bake at 200C until golden brown and crisp. Allow to cool a little before serving and serve with a salad of bitter winter leaves or a summer salad with a sharp dressing.

Category: Blogging Events, Cheese, Main Dishes, Meat, Pasta | Tags: , , , 38 comments »

38 Responses to “Return of the Mac”

  1. Sue

    That looks unbelievably good! I love your mix of cheeses. I was going to make soup for dinner but I think I’ve been inspired by your mac. :)

  2. Chris

    That. Looks. Fricking. Awesome.

  3. boo

    Yum! Macaroni cheese is my ulktimate guilty pleasure. I used to make this aaaaallllll the time as a student (minus the pork), you’ve inspired me Helen, think I have to enter too!

  4. James

    Lordy lordy holy mamma what a pig-fest! Suprised there weren’t ground bacon bits in the topping too…..

    Brought the ingredients for mine today.

  5. Mike

    That is badass. The panko is totally inspired.

    I like to do something similar but with gruyere instead of cheddar and cherry tomatoes. You have to peel the tomatoes and be careful not to disturb them while cooking.

  6. Y

    The beast looks delicious!

  7. bellini valli

    That’s so funny I was just comtemplating on making macaroni and cheese….now I have no excuse whatsoever…not that I need one.

  8. nina

    To cook the pasta in the swiney liquor is simply a stroke of genius.. This to me is really the Ultimate Mac n Cheese. I can hardly imagine that someone can out do this!!!Wow!!

  9. Jan


    Fabulous idea to cook the macaroni in the ham stock.

    If I were to gild the lily, I would add some softened leeks to the sauce, but it probably would be messing with perfection.

  10. Wendy

    Nam nam nam.

  11. markdredge

    Helen, that looks so damn good. I’m literally wiping dribble off my keyboard. Mac n cheese is one of my favourite dishes EVER. And you totally need some kind of pig in there. Mmm.

    I might need to have cheese for breakfast now to sate that hunger…

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  13. Dan (Essex Eating)

    This looks bloody delicious…I made a version of Mac n cheese recently and although it was very nice, yours looks like it wipes the floor with it. The Ham Hock addition is inspired.

  14. Charlie

    YES MATE!!! Inspired, ham stock! love it. ! this is one for this Sunday I think!

  15. Su-Lin

    I think that’s the biggest mac and cheese I’ve ever seen! And the crispiest too – nice!

  16. aforkfulofspaghetti

    Gets my vote right there, Helen. Champion macaroni cheese. Pasta cooked in ham stock? Goddamn YES!

  17. gastrogeek

    Genius! How do you come up with this stuff?!

  18. The London Foodie

    OMG Helen, this ought to be the “ULTIMATE” mac & cheese recipe! You win hands down!

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  19. Jeanne @ Cooksister!

    Oh. my. God. It’s Maczilla!! :) Looks utterly sinfully delicious though. Now you’ve got me thinking about making mac & cheese… My hips will not thank you!

  20. ginandcrumpets

    Definitely deserves the Ultimate accolade. Genius.

  21. Helen

    Sue – Thanks! I think the smoked cheese in there really does help the pork and cheddar to get even more of a love in going on.

    Chris – Why thank you kind sir.

    Boo – Do it! I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to seeing the entries of a competition more to be quite honest.

    James – Ha ha – well I had to stop somewhere ;) Looking forward to seeing your entry.

    Mike – I do love Gruyere too as it is such a good melter. I’m not keen on tomatoes in my mac, can’t really put my finger on why. I think it might be down to the fact that I am very impatient and have therefore probably burned my mouth several times on their nuclear hot little selves.

    Y – Thanks! THE BEAST.

    Bellini Valli – Sometimes a girl just needs cheese and pasta. You know it makes sense.

    Nina – You are too kind!

    Jan – ooh tempting, very, very tempting!

    Wendy – Is that a Scottish version of nom nom nom?

    Mark – Ha ha! I do hope you keep some tissues handy to wipe the dribble off your keyboard. That could get a bit gross if left for too long…

    Dan – Cheers! Mmmm pig.

    Charlie – Cheers dude! I saw another mac the other day which had crushed up crisps on top. I can’t say I’m not tempted to try it.

    Su-Lin – Me too! I thought I’d never find a use for that dish…

    Aforkfulofspaghetti – I don’t know if I can cook my pasta any other way now!

    Gastrogeek – greed, sheer greed.

    The London Foodie – I think you should judge the competition ;)

    Jeanne – The mac shall be known as Maczilla from this point forward and anyone who says otherwise will have me to deal with.

    Ginandcrumpets – Cheers m’dear!

  22. LexEat

    I’m hungry and I’m cold and this is exactly what I feel like.

  23. Lizzie

    Ham stock – genius. That looks like a proper beast.

  24. Helen

    LexEat – It is certainly a winter warmer – and probably one that will take some effort to shift come spring.

    Lizzie – Thanks! I want all my pasta like that now though – bit of a problem! It was indeed a beasty beast beast..

  25. Wendy

    Guess so! It was just the sound that started coming out of my mouth when I saw that first picture!

  26. Helen

    I knew it!

  27. Andrew

    Good effort gal… but you aint seen mine yet! (My entry that is … to the mac and cheese thing… )

  28. Helen T

    Helen, whilst it sounds like there is 1000 calories a mouthful in this, it sounds truly delicious. It’s ages since I’ve had macaroni cheese and now I’ve got a real craving to make one. And if you’re going to go for it, you may as well really go for it, and this would be the recipe to do it with!

  29. Helen

    Andrew – ha ha ha! Good to know you are cheeky as ever.

    Helen T – Thanks! Yep, it’s proper winter food alright. If you’re on Weight Watchers it means you can eat this on one day but then you need 5 days of eating absolutely nothing to make up for it.

  30. Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen

    Oh man, this looks great!

  31. Jonathan

    O good Lord. I’ve just had a heart flutter looking at this. Top bombing. Ham hock stock is inspired.

  32. Helen

    Jenn – Thanks!

    Jonathan – My mac would have been very proud to learn it had induced palpitations in a fellow cheese, pork and car appreciator. ‘Top bombing’ is brilliant. I shall be saying from this point forward.

  33. kate the bake

    I have just made & blogged a gluten free mac’n’cheese wholly inspired by your recipe. It is baking right now and it smells great, thank you!

  34. Helen

    Hi Kate – Thanks for your comment. Really happy to hear that I have inspired you to make a mac n cheese!. Excellent news indeed. Perfect Sunday comfort food.

  35. meemalee

    Congratulations on a well-deserved Mac and Cheese Win x


    Many congrats on the win
    Looks and sounds utterly delicious
    I reckon your pictures could have given us photographers a run for our money too
    Yum and double Yum

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  38. Mona Lisa

    Mac and cheese was THE lunch we used to cook up as teenage when back from school on Friday.
    Now that we are much older we love to return to this old good comfort meal. Thanks for this new look on it. Will try it next Friday.

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