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).
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.