"simplicity is the key to macaroni cheese ... nothing should leap out at you except a clumsy, gooey richness" Tom Norrington-Davies
Every day I have to decide what to cook for dinner. Mostly this is predicated on what I have in the fridge that needs to be used up. In this case it's cauliflower and tomatoes. Well there are a few other things as well but these were the two I decided to focus on today. (Not to mention pears that badly need using.)
The obvious thing to do with cauliflower is cauliflower cheese, and I have, in the past made a version that has a tomatoey cheese sauce instead of the plain cheese one. But I didn't really fancy cauliflower cheese - even a tomatoey one. Then I remembered that I had recently seen several recipes for Cauliflower mac'n cheese - it always seemed to be mac'n cheese instead of macaroni cheese. I also remembered a Robert Carrier dish that I remember fondly, of baked pasta, tomato and cheese. So I then thought it should be possible to combine all three, and anyway macaroni cheese was a good topic for a post.
Which led me ultimately to complete indecision. Still.
First a little bit of history. And the first thing to note is that this does not appear to be an Italian dish at all. Yes there are versions, of pasta and cheese, but really the first written recipe for anything remotely resembling macaroni cheese is English. It's from the 14th century cookbook - A Forme of Cury, which I think was written by Richard II's cooks.
The dish is called makerouns and goes like this:
"Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth."
Yes I know it's medieval English but I think you can pretty easily understand it. And the picture is somebody's attempt at making it - sort of similar to the classic kind of macaroni cheese shown above.
In 1770 Elizabeth Raffald wrote The Experienced English Housekeeper and in it she included a recipe for macaroni mixed with Béchamel sauce and sprinkled with Parmesan. So we are pretty much there.
The Americans of course, who insist on calling it Mac'n cheese claim that it was Thomas Jefferson - or rather his daughter - who invented it, having imported pasta making machines to his home. Then in the depression in 1937 came the Kraft boxed version. Well it was cheap and easy and it still exists as you can see from this ad. You make it by cooking the macaroni in the box, drain, add some butter and milk and then the packet of cheese sauce mix in the box, stir and heat. Ugh. Although it's possible I had this as a child. Mac'n cheese in America is huge - there are online forums, restaurants that serve nothing else, so I guess it's little wonder that they claim it as their own. And of course they have exported it elsewhere. And now that I think about it macaroni was the only kind of pasta that we knew in England back in the 50s.
Then there is the Swiss origin story which you can find on the BBC travel site. In Switzerland it's called Âlplermagronen. It's an interesting story of shepherds carrying pasta up to the summer pastures and mixing it with cream and cheese from their herd of cattle. But somehow it doesn't quite seem to be right to me, although I suppose it's little different from the medieval English one, indeed it's closer to the modern versions because it uses cream rather than butter.
And what are those modern versions? I guess my idea of macaroni cheese is that one of macaroni mixed with a cheese sauce that has been made from butter and flour, milk and cheese. I honestly can't remember whether we ever had it at home, but I'm pretty sure we had it at school where it would have looked a bit like this somewhat gloopy version, which I know I would have hated at that age because cooked cheese made me feel sick back then. So I was somewhat heartened to see this quote in Felicity Cloake's experiment in making the perfect macaroni cheese:
"A good dish of macaroni and cheese is hard to find these days. The recipes in most cookbooks are not to be trusted ... usually it is their vexatious infatuation with white sauce, a noxious paste of flour-thickened milk, for this dish flavored with a tiny grating of cheese. Contrary to popular belief, this is not macaroni and cheese but macaroni with cheese sauce. It is awful stuff and every cookbook in which it appears should be thrown out the window." John Thorne
But when, having sorted through all the different versions she comes to make the perfect version she chooses to make it with the aforesaid floury cheese sauce, and then adds tomatoes to the top, finishing the whole off under the grill. Not very authentic really.
I have been known to make a very quick and dirty kind of macaroni cheese for my lunch on occasion, which consists of just heating leftover pasta in the microwave with, butter, grated cheddar and dried oregano. Very nice, but very rich and cheesey. You can only eat a little bit of it really.
Then there's the argument about whether to bake it in the oven once you have added your cheese sauce - or whether indeed it should be a cheese sauce - maybe just cream, although there is always cheese. In his The Robert Carrier Cookbook, Carrier has a recipe called Romeo Salta's macaroni with three cheeses, in which the cooked macaroni is tossed with grated Parmesan, mozzarella and Gruyère cheeses, pepper and butter, then mixed with double cream and baked until brown. Now there's a simple version, that might look a little like this one. I could be tempted.
But this does nothing for my cauliflower and tomatoes. Forgetting the cauliflower for a moment and reminiscing about the Robert Carrier dish I looked it up. I think it looked a little like this and consisted of tagliatelle this time, tossed with a home-made tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan, topped with more of the cheeses and baked in the oven. So simple, so delicious and not quite so sickly as macaroni cheese. The tomatoes somehow take away the sickliness. So much was I tempted by the idea that I almost abandoned the idea of cauliflower. But this doesn't solve my cauliflower problem. I shall just have to go through all of that again tomorrow - or the next day. Maybe a curry?
So reluctantly I went back to the idea of cauliflower, macaroni, tomatoes and cheese. Then I came across this:
"As for the reductive logic that sees people merge cauliflower cheese and macaroni cheese, all that does is ruin two incredible dishes." Tony Naylor - The Gaurdian
And I quailed. Oh dear I was damned with the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson who has a recipe for some kind of macaroni cheese sandwich. So I had a look at dear old Jamie, cooking Mac'n cheese (yes he would call it Mac'n cheese) with cauliflower in his recent Keep Cooking & Carry On Series.
As I have said before, people are rude about Jamie Oliver but let's remember he is trying to get very ordinary people to cook nutritious food. Who cares if he speaks in that accent and does inauthentic things, like chopping up the cauliflower core and leaves and using them too. His recipe is not quite what I'm looking for here - there are no tomatoes - but nevertheless I was buoyed by his enthusiasm and his willingness to try something different. It's a confidence trick I know. I'm sure he could speak 'properly' if he wanted to, and he is a trained chef so what looks easy is sometimes not really that easy. A bit like watching a bricklayer construct a perfectly flat patio of bricks - try that some time. It is not at all easy. But his enthusiasm wins you over and makes you want to try.
So my last attempt at finding the perfect recipe because I'm not confident enough to just make it up was to cruise the net having input as my search term 'macaroni cheese tomato cauliflower'. I found some pictures but not really a perfect recipe.
The one on the left is almost it - but the tomatoes are just chopped - well squeezed in the hands - and thrown in, and the one on the right is just too deconstructed. Do I cook the cauliflower a bit beforehand, do I just throw in the tomatoes as they are or do I actually make a tomato sauce like Robert Carrier? I am still rather undecided, but as you might guess by now I'm leaning towards my nostalgic Robert Carrier version with added cauliflower.
If I had more confidence - like Jamie - I'd just charge in and do whatever I thought without paying any attention to all of those very definite statements about the cooking sins that people commit. Besides there's always somebody else who has the opposite view.
And now, having just mentioned my vague ideas to David he has sort of decreed that I should add meat! And I will probably cave in - perhaps a bit of salami or shredded ham.
Maybe I'll start on my pear tart and think about it as it do that.