Sunday, 14 February 2010

Comfort food: macaroni cheese with leeks

There is something especially comforting about macaroni cheese: the smooth, creamy sauce contrasting with the bland, slightly chewy pasta pieces. I am also a big fan of leeks, particularly leeks in cheese sauce. What could be more satisfying than a supper of maraconi cheese with leeks?

This is easy to make. First, put on a large pan of salted water for the pasta. Add the macaroni as soon as the water comes to the boil.

In another pan, warm some milk with half an onion studded with a bay leaf and two cloves (onion cloué - the French call cloves clou de girofle, from the verb clouer, "to nail", making them ideal for our purposes). Leave the milk on a gentle heat, allowing the flavours to infuse, but keep an eye on the pan to make sure it doesn't boil over.

In a third, heavy-based pan, melt a good knob of butter and add a medium leek, cleaned and thinly sliced. Put a lid on the pan and cook the leek gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or so. Sprinkle over a tablespoon of plain flour and stir well. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes, then gradually add the hot milk, stirring until smooth after each addition. Bring to a boil and cook until the sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt, pepper, grated nutmeg, and a pinch of dried mustard. Now stir in some grated cheese (I used a mixture of Gruyère and Parmesan, but a good strong cheddar would work just as well).

Drain the pasta and add to the sauce, stirring to combine. Transfer to an ovenproof dish, top with more grated cheese and some breadcrumbs. Dot with butter, and bake in a hot oven until bubbling and browned on top. The breadcrumbs add a good crunch, a nice contrast to the smooth texture of the pasta. Leeks and mushrooms go together well, so I also tried a topping made by blitzing up dried wild mushrooms with the breadcrumbs. This was good, but the mushrooms were a bit of a distraction - I prefer the comforting blandness of the plain breadcrumbs, so will stick with that in the future.

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