I never had mac’n’cheese as a kid. I was offered it once at a friend’s house- pallid and gloopy-white- and immediately remembered that my mum wanted me home for my tea. I think I had a forkful, to be polite, and it tasted precisely like it looked: thick.
Fortunately, then I grew up. The nicest part about growing up is being able to eat exactly what one wants- in my case, more cheese and wine than one human could reasonably be expected to consume- and I blithely assumed that my grown-up self would never eat macaroni cheese. Then, on a whim, I ordered it to go with a steak, at Hawksmoor, and it blew my mind. Crisp/soft. Salt-cheese. Sexy comfort food, it took the cheesebreads of my adolescent (there’s a whole other post in a proper Dubai cheesebread) and drugged them into dirty stupor.
I effectively forgot about until this evening: grey rain coming hard across the Mile End Road, house a state, work a mess, family worse, headache- and I thought, that’s what I want. Yes. Yes. There’s very little better than a meal you absolutely know you want there in front of you, just for you, and so it proved to be with this.
The Tall Man doesn’t eat pasta, unless it’s fancy, so this was just for me: cheesy pasta is one of those things like clean sheets I save for evenings when I really need them. The small pleasures.
I started off by reading Nigella’s recipe. Nigella is the queen of comfort food: it is How To Eat that sits by my bed (along, it must be said, with quite a lot of other cookbooks. But How To Eat is there, because Nigella knows what it is to really, really love food.). I went to Nigella, and she had a recipe which required no béchamel. I have no harsh feelings towards béchamel, but when a person needs speedy cheese, there is no space for béchamel. Cheese, evap. milk, macaroni. A couple of eggs. I had those things. Then I went off piste. And there it was: my perfect mac’n’cheese. As far as possibly can be from that pallid gloop at Beth’s house in 1998. Completely perfect, completely what I wanted. Pyjamas. House boxset. Crisp and vinegared salad. Wine. Cheese.
Rainy Tuesday Walnut Macaroni Cheese
Serves one, and one only. 20 mins.
Two fistfuls of dried macaroni
A good fistful of grated strong cheddar
A scant fistful of crushed up walnuts
Big glug of cream
One brown egg
Thyme, stripped down just to leaves
Pre-heat your oven to about 200 degrees. This seems a lot, but it also seems to work. I don’t know. I am no expert. Nigella does hers in a very hot oven, but then my oven is unreliable as to temperature. (I am broadly convinced that understanding one’s own oven is basically the key to all successful cooking).
Take an oven-proof dish. A small one, one that corresponds exactly to how much you can eat, and how much you want to eat. I used my little casserole. Fill it with dry macaroni, and then set that macaroni in a pan of boiling, salted, oiled water to cook. I never much liked macaroni, as a pasta, but it works for this. Small and dainty and absorbing cheese at a rate of knots. It shouldn’t take long- seven to nine minutes, according to the packet, but maybe faster. Keep an eye on it.
Take a mug; grate into it a strong cheddar. You will want the mug approximately 1/3 full of grated cheese. Throw in a handful of crushed walnuts (you can do the crushing idly in front of the House boxset, or furiously, with a hammer). A good pinch of sea salt, the kind that flakes. As much thyme as you can spare- I have plenty, having murdered not one, not two, but three thyme plants this last fortnight. No, I don’t understand it. I can cook, but I can’t grow things. It’s baffling.
Drain the pasta, and return to the hot pan. Crack in your egg, toss in your cream (a little more than you think), and nearly every bit of your cheese-walnut-thyme mixture. Stir vigorously. Pepper, if you like.
Tip the lot into your oven-proof little dish, scatter over a dusting of whatever’s left of the cheese mixture, pop in the oven. Fifteen minutes.
In that fifteen minutes, make a sweet-bitter dressing for a sweet-bitter green salad: I used baby rocket, and baby spinach, and lamb’s lettuce, and made a honey-balsamic dressing. I thought about a little bit of mustard, but it felt wrong to complicate it any further. You might feel differently.
The pasta will be done when it is golden and bubbling. Pour yourself a large glass of wine. Change into your pyjamas. Take a fork. Press Play on the TV. Eat. This is satisfaction. This is peace. This is cheese.