Until now, I was a macaroni and cheese purist. By which I mean: saucepan, stovetop. No breadcrumbs, not baked; certainly no broccoli. Just pasta and the gooiest, thickest, creamiest sauce it’s possible to make – the kind that makes filthy sucking noises when you stir it.
But then I met this recipe, from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love, the new cookbook from Yotam Ottolenghi and Noor Murad. It makes several ingenious twists to the mac and cheese format, beginning with the fact that the pasta is not cooked separately but simmers directly in the milky sauce base; its starches aren’t lost to water but instead serve as a natural thickening agent for the sauce.
For all its glory, macaroni and cheese can, I admit, be one-dimensional, or excessively rich, and this recipe solves that problem, too, with a zingy za’atar pesto made with lemons and coriander (and, in this case, parsley). That’s drizzled on top, along with golden fried onions, irresistibly crisp, crunchy, salty and sweet. I didn’t make many alterations to this recipe, other than increasing the quantity, so it could be made with a 500g bag of pasta, plus swapping in casarecce for cavatelli (I prefer its toothy, tightly sprung curl), tossing in pine nuts for an additional nutty crunch, and adding gruyere, in addition to cheddar and feta, to the cheese base.
And while Ottolenghi doesn’t mention it, I think a dish like this can only be improved by a glass of something just as cosy and autumnal on the side. That’s where this Oscillator Doppelbock comes in. This beer is as comfy as a big, woolly jumper, with its toffee sweetness and unabashed booziness. Days before drinking it, I told a friend that doppelbock was a criminally underrated style; now, I’m happy to have found this delicious local option to call on. To me, its caramelised notes mirror those fried onions, while its nuttiness offsets the pine nuts. And mature cheeses, like the ones used in this pasta, often do very well with sweet, toasty flavours; that’s certainly true here.
It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about sofa suppers, and this is another recipe to add to the canon. I’d recommend reaching for it on an evening when the darkness is getting you down, and a hot bowl of comfort is just what you need to set things right.
Middle Eastern Macaroni and Cheese
For the onions:
400ml vegetable oil (plus additional, if needed)
2 large onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons flour
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the pesto:
4 tablespoons za’atar
30g fresh coriander
30g fresh parsley
Juice of 2 lemons
1 garlic clove, crushed
50g toasted pine nuts
120ml olive oil
For the pasta:
500g dried casarecce or gemelli
1 litre whole milk
110g unsalted butter
5 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon turmeric
125ml double cream
50g toasted pine nuts
2 teaspoons cumin seeds 150g gruyere, grated
125g cheddar, grated
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1. First, fry the onions. To a large frying pan, add the oil and place over medium-high heat. While it warms, add the onions to a large bowl, separating the slices into individual segments, and toss with the flour, plus salt and pepper to taste, until lightly coated. Once the oil is hot (test this by adding a single onion piece; if it bubbles vigorously, it’s ready), add the onions. (Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in two or three batches.) Cook for roughly 5-7 minutes, turning frequently with tongs, or until golden-brown. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate and repeat with any remaining batches.
2. Next, make the pesto. Add all the ingredients to a food processor, and pulse until uniform. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Set aside.
3. To make the macaroni and cheese, add the pasta, milk, water, butter, garlic and turmeric, plus 1 ½ teaspoons of fine sea salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, to a large sauté pan, and place over medium-high heat. Once simmering, turn heat down to medium-low. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10-14 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente and the sauce is thickened (it will still be quite copious); try to prevent it from actively boiling. Once reduced, turn the heat to the lowest setting and add the double cream, pine nuts, cumin seeds and grated cheddar and gruyere. Stir until the cheeses are melted and cook for a minute or two more if the sauce needs to thicken further. Crumble over the feta and stir through; taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
4. To serve, divide the pasta between bowls. Drizzle over the za’atar pesto and top with the fried onions.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer hound and all-around lover of tasty things. You can follow her at @clairembullen. For more recipes like this, sign up to our HB&B All Killer No Filler beer subscription - you'll receive Claire's recipe and food pairings, plus beer reviews and expert tasting notes with up to 12 world-class beers - like this one - every month.