Macaroni cheese isn't something I cook very often; I would be the size of a house if I did. Every time I do cook it though, I wonder why on earth I'd waited so long. It's the grand daddy of comfort food. Pasta baked in a cheese-laden sauce, topped with breadcrumbs and then more cheese. What is there not to love? Thankfully I've never been subjected to the horrors of tinned macaroni cheese, nor that Kraft boxed version.
For my take on the classic, I like to add a bit of booze to it. What can't be improved with booze? A little ale to go in the cheese sauce gives it a slightly bitter, hoppy edge to it that complements the cheese well - much like a Welsh rarebit, I suppose. I prefer to stick to one cheese, the most mouth-wateringly mature cheddar you can find. It is imperative that you have this with a large glob of ketchup.
1 large onion
2 sprigs of thyme
For the cheese sauce:
50ml light ale (I used Tanglefoot)
2 bay leaves
Half an onion
A grating of nutmeg
Salt & pepper
As much extra mature cheddar as you dare - I used Pilgrims. Reserve some to sprinkle on top.
25gr plain flour
1 clove of garlic
1 tbsp English mustard flour
Simmer the ale in a saucepan for a minute. Add the milk, onion, bay leaves and cloves and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and leave to infuse for half an hour. Meanwhile, put the pasta on to cook in a large pan of salted water until very al dente.
Strain the milk and ale mixture into a jug. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the clove of garlic, minced finely. Cook on a very low heat for 5 minutes. Add the flour and the mustard flour and stir well. Add a few dribbles of the milk mixture and whisk like mad, only adding more milk when any lumps have been whisked out and the milk incorporated.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. In a non stick pan, fry the sliced onion with the thyme very slowly to caramelise, which will take about 20 minutes. This can be done well in advance.
When the sauce is nice and thick, take off the heat and add the cheese. Put the cooked pasta in a large bowl, add the sauce (incrementally, in case there's too much. Any leftovers goes well on top of a piece of toast, grilled till bubbling). Mix well and pour into a dish. Top with the caramelised onions in a layer, then add the breadcrumbs and top with the reserved cheese. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, by which time it should be golden and bubbling.