Hunger Management

Recipe: Customise macaroni and cheese by making it from scratch

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 19, 2014

It seems churlish to complain about the glare of the sun, which is getting more noticeable, when we have had a really long run of cool weather in Singapore.

For a couple of months, it has been glorious; not too humid, with breezes, winds and rain to cool things down.

But warmer weather is coming and soon, we will be engulfed in full-blown mugginess and heat. What are we to do, since we choose to live so close to the Equator?

Before that happens, however, there might still be a couple of rainy days where a rib- sticking dish of macaroni and cheese is good reason to cocoon indoors.

This pasta and cheese dish can be a main or side dish. Serve it with a salad for a simple meal, or set it on the table with steak or pork chops and some steamed vegetables.

Of course, you can get virtually instant versions of it and there are people who swear by those boxes.

However, made from scratch is much better and there is room for customisation.

The recipe I have given this week is very basic, not tarted up at all.

To turn it into a one-dish meal, add chopped ham or leftover roast chicken and some spinach leaves to the pasta. Other additions can include chopped-up sundried tomatoes, juicy corn kernels, sauteed mushrooms and even bacon, if in a devil-may-care mood.

Stir in cooked lobster meat to make a luxe dish, when money is no object.

Aside from salt and pepper, other seasonings can include freshly grated nutmeg or a teaspoon or two of dried mustard powder.

I like the tangy flavour of Gruyere, so that goes into my mac and cheese. Sharp Cheddar is another favourite and a combination of these cheeses ensures that the sauce never becomes overly rich.

However, other options can include Monterey Jack, Cheddar and Colby cheeses. Fans of blue cheeses might want to crumble some Stilton or Gorgonzola into the mix too.

Even the topping is negotiable. I like the buttery taste of Ritz Crackers but crushed cream crackers, panko crumbs and fresh breadcrumbs made by pulsing stale white bread, crusts trimmed, in the food processor will do as well.

If using panko or fresh breadcrumbs, drizzle some melted butter over the dish after sprinkling the crumbs over, so they turn a lovely golden brown.

Martha Stewart, American lifestyle doyenne, has a version which is topped with torn-up pieces of bread tossed in melted butter. These croutons turn crisp in the oven and are a good counterpoint to the creamy pasta.

Her dish is not nicknamed Crack & Cheese for nothing.

If you looked at the recipe first and groaned because it involves making a bechamel sauce (with a mixture of butter and flour in milk), I hope you will try it any way because there is nothing to fear. All you need is a whisk.

This basic white sauce is a useful one to master. It can be used as a base for chicken pie filling, for example. Bechamel is also what makes a Croque Monsieur, basically a French-style ham and cheese sandwich, a lot more interesting.

I have found that cooking the sauce over medium-low heat ensures that the flour is cooked thoroughly so the raw taste of it does not mar the bechamel.

Whisk the flour and butter together until it becomes pasty, and then add hot milk in a thin and steady stream, whisking all the time.

If the sauce looks too thick after the cheese has been added, thin it out with some extra hot milk, whisking constantly. But watch it with the milk because you do not want a runny sauce that pools at the bottom of the baking dish.

The last bit of advice is to undercook the pasta, so the finished dish is not mushy. After all, the macaroni sits in the oven for at least 20 minutes, so cook it for 2 minutes less than the time stated on the packet and it will be just right after its time in the oven.

If it rains today, you'll know it's a sign to grate some cheese, make a sauce, fold it into cooked pasta and enjoy what little cool weather we have left.

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