I love homemade mac ’n’ cheese – especially if it’s mine! This is one dish where I will always prefer my own homemade version – or my mum’s – over anything from a restaurant. I learnt the basic cheese sauce recipe from my mum and I have adapted it over the years, experimenting with adding various different ingredients. I have had my fair share of disasters as I tried to perfect it (such as this blitzed kale for a ‘superfood’ – an unappetisingly green – one).
My ultimate goal cheese combo is gruyère, hard grated mozzarella and Cheddar for extra ooziness, but as this is more expensive (and we’re now low on funds having just bought a flat), I use Cheddar here. You’re doing several things at once here, so it can be overwhelming at first. If you struggle, you can cook each part individually and then combine them all at the end and give it a little longer in the oven to ensure everything is hot. Just heat the cheese sauce through a little before combining to melt in any skin that might have formed.
I usually mix up the additions depending on what I happen to have in the fridge, but it generally involves tomatoes, mushrooms and peas – so that I’m getting in at least a few veg! It’s a bit non-traditional in this way – plus the fact that I almost never use actual macaroni pasta! I’ve indicated weights for the ingredients, but you don’t have to be precise – I usually just bung in half a packet of pasta, a whole packet of cherry tomatoes, a whole packet of mushrooms and however many peas I fancy, or I’ll just use however much I have.
My Signature Mac ‘n’ Cheese
250g pasta (any smallish shape will do – fusilli, conchiglie, bows, etc.)
150g frozen peas
knob of butter
150g mushrooms, sliced
300g cherry tomatoes, quartered
50–100g grated Cheddar
100g asparagus spears, trimmed
For the cheese sauce
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat the grill to a medium–high heat.
Fill a large saucepan with 1 litre of water and bring to the boil over a high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions (usually somewhere between 8 and 12 minutes). About 3–4 minutes before the pasta is done, add the peas. When the timer is up, drain in a colander. If the other elements aren’t ready at this point, the pasta and peas can sit in the colander for a few minutes while you finish everything else off.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and then mix in the flour with a whisk or spoon (a whisk helps prevent lumps later on, but a strong arm and wooden spoon will do the same). Keep mixing over the heat for 1 minute to ‘cook’: this mixture is called ‘roux’. Turn off the heat and very gradually, a small splash at a time, add the milk, continually whisking to avoid lumps: this is now white sauce. Season with a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. (I highly recommend sea salt, as it tastes so much better than table salt, isn’t bleached, and has more nutrients [from the sea!]. If you do choose to use table salt, use only a tiny amount, as it’s so much stronger in taste. That goes for any dish.) Place over a low heat and keep an eye on it whilst you cook the veg, stirring frequently to stop it catching on the bottom. Watch for little bubbles as it starts to simmer, then simmer for a couple of minutes – or just heat and stir until it gets thick. It’s fine either way.
While the white sauce is heating, melt a knob of butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms and fry for about 4–5 minutes, then add the cherry tomatoes and fry for another 2–3 minutes, until both the mushrooms and tomatoes have released their juices and the juices have begun to evaporate. (You can eat the juices and it tastes fine with then, but it can make the cheese sauce look a bit grey and unappetising – up to you.)
Once the roux is thick, add the cheese gradually, tasting as you go and adding more if you want it more cheesy. (I usually end up using an entire packet of cheese for this dish, including the topping, but I really love cheese.)
When all three elements are cooked, mix them all together in the big saucepan you used for the pasta. Taste and add a little more salt and pepper if you fancy, then tip everything into a roasting dish (pyrex or ceramic are both fine – don’t use a metal roasting tray). Top with the remaining grated cheese and then the asparagus.
Place under the grill and grill for about 5–10 minutes until the asparagus is starting to catch and the cheese is bubbling and starting to brown.
Tip: if you don’t have a grill (or the patience to wait), you can serve it straight out of the pot once everything is mixed together. Fry the asparagus in the pan for a few minutes and serve on top or do without.