How to make macaroni cheese – recipe

<span>Felicity Cloake’s macaroni cheese.</span><span>Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.</span>
Felicity Cloake’s macaroni cheese.Photograph: Robert Billington/The Guardian. Food styling: Loïc Parisot.

Before we had mac and cheese, voluptuous and gooey and gilded with bacon, lobster and/or truffle, there was plain old “macaroni cheese”, which has been enjoyed in the UK since at least the 14th century.

Nineteenth -and 20th-century versions tend towards the mild and creamy, and it’s perfect comfort food … though, of course, there’s nothing to stop you ramping up the cheese, if that’s your particular idea of solace.

Prep 10 min
Cook 15 min
Serves 4

Salt and black pepper
400g macaroni
70g butter
, plus a little extra for greasing
50g plain flour
900ml whole milk
A grating of nutmeg
1 tsp English mustard powder
120g mature cheddar
2 slices white bread
, blitzed to crumbs, or 4 tbsp panko breadcrumbs
2 tbsp grated parmesan, or vegetarian alternative
4 medium tomatoes

1 Par-cook the pasta

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a boil, then simmer the macaroni (or other pasta shape) until just shy of being cooked to your taste – the exact timings will depend on both the pasta and how soft you like it, but as a rough guide go for about two minutes less than the packet instructions say. Drain, then rinse with cold water to get rid of some of the surface starch.

2 Start the base sauce

While it’s cooking, melt 60g of the butter over a medium heat in a saucepan big enough to hold all the milk and pasta, then stir in the flour to make a smooth paste. (You can use cornflour instead, if you prefer, which is also useful for making this dish gluten-free if you use the appropriate pasta and breadcrumbs.)

3 Add the milk

Cook, stirring continuously, for a couple of minutes, until the flour loses its raw smell, then gradually stir in the milk a little at a time, so you don’t end up with lumps. Once it’s all incorporated, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring all the time, until the sauce thickens.

4 Finish the sauce

Take off the heat and stir in a good grating of nutmeg and the mustard powder. Alternatives include smoked, sweet or hot paprika, cayenne pepper, dried thyme, black pepper, mustard or black onion seeds (or wholegrain mustard), Korean gochujang or other hot sauces or pastes, Worcestershire sauce. As long as it goes with cheese, it’s worth a go.

5 A note on the cheese

Grate the cheese. I find cheddar hard to beat here, but feel free to play around, though do bear in mind that the dryer the cheese, the more prone it is to split when heated, which is why the likes of mozzarella, gruyere and roquefort melt better than older cheeses. Ideally, avoid pre-grated cheeses, too, because they contain anti-clumping agents that hinder the melting process.

6 Melt the cheese into the sauce

Stir the cheese into the sauce and taste. Depending on the strength of the cheese you go for, you might want to add more than the quantity of cheddar I’ve listed here. This is also the point to add any extras, such as caramelised onions, cooked bacon, blanched and well dried greens, etc – avoid anything that will make the sauce watery, though.

7 Mix in the pasta

Once the sauce is seasoned to your satisfaction, stir in the drained pasta to coat. Grease a medium baking dish with butter, then tip in the pasta mixture and level it out so it fills the dish evenly. If you’re planning on serving immediately, cut the tomatoes in half laterally, arrange them cut side up on top, then season and dot the lot with a little butter.

8 Top with tomatoes and grill

Turn on the grill to medium, then grill the macaroni cheese for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes look done. Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a small pan, add the breadcrumbs, toss to coat, stir in the parmesan and season.

After the macaroni cheese has done its 10 minutes, scatter the crumb mix over the top and grill again until deeply golden.

9 And to prepare ahead of time …

If you’re making this ahead, prepare it up the point of adding the pasta mix to the buttered dish, though ideally keep the pasta slightly more al dente than here, and the sauce a little thinner, and leave the sauce to cool before combining it with the pasta. Top with the tomatoes, cover with foil and bake in a 200C (180C fan)/450F/gas 54 oven for 30 minutes. Uncover, add the breadcrumb topping and bake until golden.