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Mac and cheese, yes please

A simple one-bowl meal of macaroni and cheese has the power to comfort the body and soul

Photo: Pamela Timms
Photo: Pamela Timms

It says something about my summer that one of the highlights was a humble bowl of macaroni cheese. I won’t ruin your weekend with the grim details, suffice to say it was almost inevitable that I would round things off while out walking the dog a few weeks ago, by tripping over my bootlaces and breaking my arm. Frankly, if the food writing goes awry, I could probably make a new life in Nashville writing country songs.

So, with two (finally!) functioning arms on the keyboard, let me instead focus on that macaroni cheese. I was at a food festival recently in a far-flung Scottish town and, along with two other food writers, looking for a quick bite to eat before turning in. Our expectations were low when we realized that apart from pub fare at the local bar, there was only one restaurant in town and its menu was largely restricted to the usual dispiriting microwave-friendly fare—macaroni cheese, lasagne, scampi, beef and ale pie. Our gastronomic hearts did not soar, so we grabbed a couple of bottles of wine from the local supermarket (the restaurant doesn’t have an alcohol licence so it has a “Bring Your Own Bottle" policy) in anticipation of spending the entire evening bemoaning Scotland’s provincial food scene. We all chose the macaroni cheese, thinking it might be the least bad option. We were a few mouthfuls in before we stopped, looked at each other in disbelief, and said, “This is really good." Really cheesy, pasta just right, velvety smooth sauce and lots of it—the sort of food that feels like a great big hug in a plate. And it had almost certainly been nowhere near a microwave.

One of the reasons that we opted for the macaroni cheese, I think, is that we Scots always want to believe in macaroni cheese—comforting, unchallenging cheesy deliciousness, just like our mums made. The nearest Indian equivalent would be khichdi. More often than not, though, we’re disappointed because although it is a simple dish, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to make it. That night, though, faith was restored in the power of macaroni cheese, and all was well with the world. Spirits were so high by the time we finished dinner in fact that we all ended up in the local pub singing karaoke till the early hours. But that’s another story.

One of the reasons that we’re often disappointed is that macaroni cheese has, unbelievably, become fashionable. It has become “dude food", served to hipsters from food trucks up and down the land, and has even started appearing on the menus of high-end restaurants, complete with crispy pancetta, pulled pork, drizzles of truffle oil, even lobster. In New York, there is a restaurant which only serves mac and cheese—their 12 varieties include one made with Brie, roasted figs and shiitake mushrooms as well as vegan and reduced lactose versions.

“Mac and cheese", by the way, is the American way of doing things and often involves a little blue box, stamped with the word Kraft and containing a mysterious powder to which you just add milk. I know it is available in Delhi shops because one of my sons became addicted to it when we lived there. Do not be tempted, it is foul and bears no resemblance to the home-made version.

Macaroni cheese has always had a special place in Scottish hearts; there the combination of carb-dairy-fat never goes out of fashion. It is believed to have arrived with the first wave of Italian immigrants although there is mention of it much earlier. Mrs Beeton was making it in 1861, although I would caution against her advice to boil the pasta for between 1N and 1K hours. Scots love it so much that we even put it in pies, although you need to be terminally hungover to appreciate it. But even there things are getting out of hand. In Glasgow, there is now an annual festival devoted to it, the McIntosh Pastaval, during which participants take part in macaroni cheese appreciation around the city and vote on their favourites.

Unfortunately, it seems people just cannot stop embellishing it and this almost never ends well. Happily, the lovely cooks that night had resisted the craze to “improve" macaroni cheese, understanding completely that in its natural, return-to-childhood state, macaroni cheese is absolutely perfect. They know that the whole point is the dish’s simplicity, its nostalgia, and that any deviation from that defeats the point entirely.

The Way We Eat Now is a column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains.

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