Food: Nursery class

A sublimely rich, real macaroni cheese is just too sophisticated to be consigned to children's suppers. Photograph by Oscar Paisley
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Having feasted relentlessly for the past week, nanny says we should live off salads for the rest of January. And salads are OK, I guess, but I'd rather be tucking into something hot and crispy from a gratin dish, precariously united by skeins of melted cheese.

I am waiting patiently for macaroni cheese to make a comeback. Old recipes give this nursery classic considerably more respect than it is afforded now that it's been relegated to corporate catering (prisons, cruise ships, boarding schools, etc). "The common English mode of dressing `macaroni' is with grated cheese, butter, and cream, or milk," writes Eliza Acton in The People's Cookery Book. "French cooks generally substitute a spoonful or two of very strong, rich, jellied gravy for the cream; and the Italians, amongst their many other modes of serving it, send it to the table simply laid into a good Espagnole or brown gravy, accompanied by a plate of grated cheese."

She continues by giving a recipe for Macaroni a la Reine where a rich sauce is prepared from grated, strong white cheese and cream, flavoured with mace and cayenne pepper and enriched with butter. The whole is smothered generously "with fine crumbs of bread, fried to a pale gold colour, and dried perfectly, either before the fire or in an oven."

Although I haven't tested this recipe, it sounds very much like a good macaroni cheese should: so rich it cries out for a spoonful of jellied gravy to temper it. For vegetarians who cannot indulge, I have included some slow-roasted tomatoes that have a very similar effect. It should be nice and sloppy, too, which means starting with a cheese sauce that is really quite runny. To pack it with flavour, I always use a well-matured Cheddar - the kind that stings the roof of your mouth will do nicely - and boost it with a little freshly grated Parmesan and some mustard.

Pasta intended for the oven needs to be robust, which rules out quick-cook macaronis that fast turn soft and slimy. It seems absurd that there should be such a thing as quick-cook pasta that undercooks the original by all of five minutes, given the additional processing it takes to achieve this. Are we really that short of time? I buy all my pasta, especially that intended for baking, from reputable Italian delis. The brand De Cecco is widely available and extremely good. Its pasta tubes (I won't get into the pedantry of naming them), short, fat and with a central hole, can be cooked for about seven minutes, leaving them slightly on the chalky side. Layered with tomato sauce, cheese, mushrooms and the like they can withstand another 20 minutes in a hot oven without losing face.

Increasingly, I cook pasta "al forno" rather than any other way. This has partly to do with being a sucker for melted cheese. Fontina is the finest cheese for melting there is, collapsing artfully into a silken cream. The only conceivable doppelganger is raclette which means a trip to a decent cheese shop (the fontina tends to be found in Italian delis, but at least you can pick up some pasta while you're there).

Penne, fontina and wild mushrooms `al forno', serves 6

This is the same tomato sauce I suggested back in the summer. I ended up with a huge glut of cherry tomatoes on my hands and made quantities to freeze which I have just about run out of. There was one particular pasta dish born of this that seemed especially good. Typically, I didn't bother to write the recipe down but this, as far as I remember, was it.

Tomato sauce

1.5kg cherry tomatoes, washed

1 heaped tsp sea salt

1 level tsp caster sugar

100g unsalted butter

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil


25g unsalted butter

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

350g chanterelles, picked over

Sea salt, black pepper

350g tubular pasta, eg penne or rigatoni

250g fontina, sliced

To make the sauce place the tomatoes in a pan, cover and cook over a low heat for 20 minutes until they collapse, stirring them after five minutes. Pass through a sieve or a mouli-legumes and return to the pan. Add the remaining ingredients for the sauce and simmer very gently, uncovered, for 60 minutes until thickened, but still of a thin pouring consistency.

Cook the mushrooms in two batches so as not to overcrowd the frying pan. Heat half the butter and oil over a high heat and saute the mushrooms until soft, tossing them constantly. If they throw out any liquid then continue to cook them until it evaporates. Remove them to a bowl and cook the remainder likewise, then season them.

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta, stir to separate it and cook until it's almost tender - a little firmer than "al dente". Drain and run cold water through it.

Assemble the pasta in a shallow gratin or baking dish. Lightly layer the ingredients as follows: spoon a third of the sauce over the base, then loosely layer half the pasta, mushrooms and fontina, and repeat with the remaining ingredients, ending with a good coating of sauce. Bake for 20-25 minutes by which time it should be quite deeply golden on top. Serve straightaway.

Macaroni cheese, serves 4


450g tomatoes

Olive oil

1 tsp clear honey

Sea salt, black pepper


3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

150ml white wine

50g unsalted butter, diced

40g plain flour

500ml milk

300ml double cream

1 heaped tsp grainy mustard

60g freshly grated Parmesan

100g mature Cheddar, grated

350g macaroni


50g breadcrumbs

40g unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Cut a small cone from each tomato to remove the hard central core, then halve. Place cut-side-up in a roasting tray in a single layer, drizzle over a little olive oil and the honey. Season them and roast for 40 minutes.

In the meantime, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil for the pasta and make the sauce by placing the shallots and wine in a small saucepan and reducing to a couple of tablespoons. Whisk in the butter, then sprinkle over the flour and cook the roux for a minute of two. Working off the heat, gradually whisk in the milk and then the cream, vigorously dispersing any lumps. Return the pan to the heat, bring to the boil stirring constantly and leave to simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season, then stir in the mustard and cheeses. Return to the heat to melt thoroughly.

Turn the oven up to 220C/425F/ gas mark 6. Add the macaroni to the boiling water and stir to separate it. Cook until it is almost tender, leaving it slightly chalky, then drain it into a sieve and run cold water through it. Toss this with the cheese sauce. Remove to a shallow gratin or baking dish. Nestle the tomatoes into the surface. Toss the breadcrumbs with the butter in a bowl, and scatter over the macaroni. Cook for 25 minutes until the crumbs are crisp and the sauce is bubbling. Serve immediately.

Orecchiette, roasted pumpkin and sage `al forno', serves 4

These chubby little ears of pasta are the ideal texture for baking.

900g pumpkin flesh, cut into 3-4cm chunks

Extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt, black pepper

200g orecchiette

40g unsalted butter

2 handfuls of sage leaves

3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

100ml white wine

200g mascarpone

40g freshly grated Parmesan

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Place the pumpkin in a roasting dish in a single layer, drizzle over a little olive oil, season and roast for 45 minutes, turning it halfway through. At the end of cooking, loosen using a palette knife.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the orecchiete. Cook until almost tender, then drain it into a colander and run cold water through it. You can toss it with a few drops of olive oil to stop it sticking. Heat the butter in a small frying pan, and as the foam subsides, add the sage leaves and garlic and gently fry until they begin to colour, then remove from the heat.

To assemble the dish, combine the pumpkin, orecchiette and sage leaves in a shallow baking or gratin dish and season. Pour over wine, and spoon the mascarpone over the surface. Scatter over the Parmesan and bake for 20 minutes. Serve right away