"To soothe the inner beast or quell the pain of a broken heart, make macaroni and cheese"
-Marlena Spieler Macaroni and Cheese (2006)
Whenever someone mentions mac n' cheese, or what you preposition-averse Brits call macaroni cheese, I do a little dance. There are few things more delicious in life than the union of starch and cheese, and done properly, this is comfort food of the highest order. So when Fiona Beckett, author of Fiona Beckett's Cheese Course announced on her blog The Cheeselover she was running The Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge after Christmas I thought hot diggity dog, I am entering this competition or else.
Except I was beset by swine flu. And then when I returned to London the elements conspired once again and I was bedridden for the first two weeks of the new year. My body did not appreciate returning from a balmy 25 degrees in the Canaries and the warm embrace of my parents to arctic winds and snow back here in the Big Smoke. Paradoxically for someone who lived 15 years in Norway I don't really love the cold except when temperatures drop to -5 degrees celsius and the air is dry and crisp. Idiosyncratic, I know.
At any rate, I didn't recover in time to enter by Fiona's stated deadline of January 18th and promptly forgot all about the mac n' cheese challenge, but discovered the literary joys of Raymond Chandler and Stieg Larsson so all was not lost while I was ill.
I was happily ploughing my way through brilliant books the last two weeks whilst recovering from flu when I realised Fiona's deadline had been extended til 11:59pm January 24th. Today.
Gulp! So off I traipsed to Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden yesterday morning contemplating the world, well contemplating cheese after deciding on entering the 'Best Use of Artisanal Cheese' category in Fiona's competition. It was a no-brainer; I'm obsessed by cheese and was even quoted in the Telegraph as being a cheese anthropologist, something for which I have to confess is not actually a discipline of anthropology. Though it damn well should be, the world of cheese is a fascinating one! You learn more from a person talking about cheese than you ever will discussing Foucault or Bourdieu in seminars.
But that's another story.
So I wanted to enter this competition with the express intention of celebrating the best of British artisanal cheese. I may only be 1/4 British but it's enough to stir my patriotic loins when it comes to British cheese. These Isles have some of the finest cheeses in the world and compared to the moribund French artisan cheese industry, British cheesemakers are storming ahead of their continental peers. Artisan cheese here is in robust health and that is excellent news.
In I went to Neal's Yard and stated my intentions, much to the bemusement to Charlie, one of the fellas working there who was extremely patient with my request. I said I was hoping to marry some of my favourite unpasteurised artisanal cheeses: Gorwydd Caerphilly, Montgomery's Cheddar and Stichelton in this mac n' cheese experiment. And out I came with Gorwydd Caerphilly, Montgomery's Cheddar, Stichelton and a Wensleydale which Charlie thought would work well in the cheese sauce. I also snaffled 12 oz. Neal's Yard creme fraiche at an eyewatering £4.40 for the cheese sauce and a new cheese called Danegold to try for lunch one day next week. A jar of pepper jelly sauce concluded my puchases for the day and I skipped back to Bloomsbury, warning my Man that he'd better be in the mood for mac n' cheese.
Thankfully my better half is a cheese man so he didn't need persuading, though much like young Charlie of Neal's Yard, he was somewhat bemused by my fixation on creating an artisanal mac n' cheese dish. What happened to using good old cheddar they probably wondered.
Anyway, without further ado here's the recipe I created and let me warn you - it's exceptionally cheesy. The combination of Caerphilly and Wensleydale with the creme fraiche sauce is the perfect base for the more robust Stichelton crumbled haphazardly on top with the final flourish of Montgomery cheddar generously scattered to cover the dish before allowing the mac n' cheese to bubble and ooze and crisp up in the oven. We both hoovered up indecent portions of the stuff, along with salad as a digestif. You'll need greens of some description to digest the mac n' cheese whether you're using hefty artisanal cheeses or not.
Recipe for the Ultimate Artisanal Cheese Mac n' Cheese/Macaroni Cheese January 2010:
Neal's Yard creme fraiche
(This technically serves 4, but be prepared to fight over it)
This recipe is basically a hybrid of Heston Blumenthal's and queen of mac n' cheese Marlena Spieler's recipes, the former a Gratin of Macaroni from Heston's Family Food whereas Marlena's is the quintessential yankee doodle dandee Mac n' Cheese from her book titled - appropriately enough - Macaroni & Cheese. I wanted to make this with creme fraiche for extra tanginess and opted to forego a roux-based sauce in favour of this dairy bombshell of a dish. Do not scrimp on the creme fraiche or the cheese. What the heck is the point of eating this dish if it's not oozing with cheesy goodness?!
Preheat the oven to 190 C/Gas Mark 5/375 F
Bring salted water in a saucepan to a boil, add macaroni and boil til al dente (5 minutes should do the trick). Run cold water over the macaroni - soba noodle style - when you've drained the cooking water to stop the pasta from getting too claggy and continuing to cook.
Coarsely grate the cheddar on a plate and crumble the stichelton next to it. Set aside. Finely grate the wensleydale and caerphilly and in a small saucepan heat the creme fraiche and single cream. Take off the heat when the cream starts to bubble, and add the wensleydale and caerphilly, stirring to distribute both cheeses and allow the sauce to thicken. Season to taste.
Rub the inside of the roasting dish with the half clove of garlic. Mix the cheesy sauce with the pasta, pour into the dish and sprinkle with stichelton. Finally top with montgomerys and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Drizzle with worcestershire sauce for that welsh rarebit (rabbit?) effect, not strictly necessary but the slight sweetness and umami effect of the worcester sauce doesn't harm the dish.
What do you reckon - have I done British artisanal cheese justice?