Mrs Bailey’s Macaroni Cheese
Every culture on every planet has its comfort foods. On the whole, they tend to be warm and filling; they don’t always hark back to childhoods, but it is a common feature.
On Mars as all through the Empire, a few people speak of nursery food with scorn — but only a few, and to some extent even they are posing. Even they have their heartfelt, heart-hidden passions, something soft or something sweet, something that lies as much in their memory as it does in their stomach, soothing and settling, be it a bowl of porridge or a soft-poached egg or a custard tart, whatever.
Macaroni cheese is a classic nursery comfort food, and Mrs Bailey’s version has comforted many a generation of homesick schoolgirls. And, let it be said, sometimes their mistresses too. Hers is a classic of its kind, made with a butter-and-flour roux; you can call it a Béchamel — heavens, once you’ve added the cheese, you could call it a Mornay — but Mrs B will have no truck with your nonsense. To her it’s a white sauce, and always will be. And she keeps it simple, at least until the milk has all gone in. After that, the world’s your oyster, as far as additives go.
NB: this recipe has no reliable measurements at all. Mrs B could make this blindfold, and she certainly hasn’t measured anything about it since she was a kitchenmaid herself, an unthinkable notion in itself. I myself am much the same, so honestly, wherever I give a quantity I’m kind of pretending, okay? I shall call it estimating, just to sound more professional. Honestly, this isn’t a recipe so much as a method. As it ought to be.
You will need:
Macaroni, or other dried pasta of your choice
Grated cheddar cheese, the sharper the better
Salt, pepper and the spices of your choice
Mushrooms if you like them
Bacon if you like it
Tomatoes if you like them
Cook the macaroni according to packet instructions or your own preference, drain and set aside.
If you like bacon, cook half a dozen rashers crisp, according to your preferred method. (I bake ’em in a tray in the oven, me.)
Melt a knob of butter over a lowish heat, and add something like a heaped tablespoon of flour (an ounce/30g? Something like that). Mrs B and I like to use a little more butter than flour. Work together until they form a paste, and cook it off for a minute or two, until the colour darkens a little and the texture becomes a little softer. You will know this when you see it; it doesn’t take long.
Now start adding milk, a splash at a time. You’ll need something in the neighbourhood of a pint, but have more in case. As soon as you work the first splash into the roux, it’ll stiffen abruptly. Don’t be alarmed. Splash again and mix again. Mrs B was always trained to do this off the heat; I no longer bother. Your choice.
Keep adding milk in small increments, stirring it in thoroughly between additions, until the mixture in the pan has gone from an ever-loosening paste to a thickish liquid; again, you’ll know it when you see it. Now you can add milk more freely, for there is no longer any danger of enlumpening.
Bring to a boil, at which point it will thicken again. If you’d rather have it looser, add more milk — and keep the carton at hand, because you can do this at any point in the process and may well want to again.
If you’re adding mushrooms, halve or quarter them and do so now. Cook them off for a few minutes, stirring regularly and keeping an eye on the consistency of the sauce. Also now is the time for salt, pepper and anything else you fancy. Nutmeg is a classic here; so is mustard. Myself, I am fond of a little smoked paprika and a hint of cayenne, just to let it bite back.
Preheat the broiler/grill in your oven.
Add a generous amount of grated cheese to the sauce. Stir that in until melted, taste, and add some more. Seriously. (I confess, I did once forget the cheese altogether. I was halfway through the meal before I realised this, the sauce just tasted that good; nevertheless, I do not recommend this approach. You’d have to think of a new name, for a start.)
Now add the pasta to the sauce, stir and cook for a minute, then pour it all into a buttered ovenproof dish.
If you’re going with the bacon, snap it into short sections and strew liberally all across the surface of the saucy cheesy pasta.
Top that with sliced tomatoes, if you’re so inclined. Then cover everything with a layer of more grated cheese, set it on a rimmed baking tray just in case of overflows, and slide it under the broiler. Leave it there until the cheese on top is dark and crisp and smelling extraordinary.
Serve immediately, remembering to handle the dish with oven gloves, because it will be scorching hot.
For more of Mrs Bailey’s recipes, see here: