A good mac ‘n’ cheese is probably the ultimate pasta bake. It’s simple, filling, doesn’t need a million ingredients, and is perfect for feeding a crowd.
What’s often overlooked, though, is that mac ‘n’ cheese is also a wonderful blank canvas that’s perfect for experimenting with. The classic combination of pasta and thick, cheesy white sauce is uncomplicated, but full of so much potential.
However, there’s no point thinking about how to pimp up macaroni cheese before you’ve nailed the basic recipe, though. Jamie’s Killer mac ‘n’ cheese comes from the New York stop on his road trip across America, and includes everything a good one should: a luxurious white sauce loaded with caramelised garlic and plenty of cheese (Parmesan as well as cheddar for full-on flavour), pasta cooked to perfection so that the final result isn’t mushy, and a breadcrumb topping so crispy and golden-brown you almost feel bad for cracking into it… almost.
With this recipe as a starting point, you’ll be well-placed to get experimenting. To get you started, we put our heads together with the food team and came up with four brilliant twists. They’re all huge on flavour, and a great way to start playing with combinations you may not necessarily have thought of.
Nb. The recipe we used for the base includes a little twist of its own – a few handfuls of chopped tomatoes, which adds a hit of freshness through the white sauce. Feel free to leave these out, if you wish.
Green mac ‘n’ cheese with spinach & broccoli (v)
This bright green beauty will make quite the impression when it’s plonked into the middle of the table. It’s also super simple: while the components of your mac ‘n’ cheese are cooking, break up a head of broccoli and steam until soft enough to be easily pierced by a fork – about 8 mins – and wash around 200g of fresh spinach. Before constructing your dish, whiz the vegetables into the white sauce with a stick blender, then combine the gorgeous green sauce with the pasta. Top with lots of Parmesan and a few sprigs of basil, then bake until golden.
Ham hock with mustard cheese sauce & rosemary pangritata
For this magnificently, meaty mac ‘n’ cheese we looked to another favourite recipe of ours: Jamie’s jerky ham hocks. We also added a generous dollop of English mustard to the sauce, for good measure.
To make, simply follow the ham hock recipe and then get the white sauce and pasta going. When the meat is ready and falling away from the bone, strip it all off, shred it, and stir into the white sauce and pasta.
For the stunningly fragrant pangritata, strip a few leaves from a sprig of rosemary, combine with the breadcrumbs in the standard mac ‘n’ cheese recipe, and prepare in the same way before sprinkling over the top and baking until golden and bubbling.
Mexican-style with green chilli, smoked paprika and a guacamole topping (v)
This one is a force to be reckoned with, and shows that with a couple of clever twists, a comforting mac ‘n’ cheese can be transformed into a rich and fiery delight with a fresh, lively topping.
First, the sauce: these flavours call for some smokiness, and that can be achieved by adding sweet smoked paprika to your white sauce once it’s thickened up. It’s potent, so only add about half a teaspoon at first, then taste to see what you think. It’ll dye your sauce a lovely shade of red (as will using red Leicester cheese instead of cheddar).
For the topping, we’ve gone nacho-style, with a classic guacamole and quick-pickled red onion. The hit of lime from the guac and the freshness of the pickle works wonders with the creamy sauce. This quick pickling trick is one that’s well worth learning: simply slice up a red onion as finely as you possibly can and submerge in red wine vinegar with a teaspoon each of salt and sugar for 10 minutes or so.
The star ingredient in this show, however, is fresh green jalapeño peppers. Chop them into small pieces and stir them into the white sauce; slice them finely and scatter over the top to crisp up in the oven; or even add a few slices to your onion and pickle them yourself. The heat they’ll add to your meal will be warming but distinctive, and when paired with the smoked paprika will make for one hell of a flavour combo.
Once you’ve pulled your finished dish from the oven, top it with a few dollops of the guacamole and serve with a helping of pickled onion and chilli and a few sprigs of coriander.
Brown-butter sage with blue cheese and a pesto & walnut topping (v)
This variation is a masterpiece, if we do say so ourselves. It’s so bold in its flavours, and builds on the comforting nature of mac ‘n’ cheese to make something truly unforgettable.
Blue cheese is the workhorse here – it adds a sharp bite to the sauce. We used around 150g in place of the Cheddar and Parmesan, sprinkling most of it into the white sauce and the rest over
the top of the dish before baking.
For the aromatic brown-butter sage part of the sauce, simply fry ten or so sage leaves in a generous knob of butter over a low heat until the butter is slightly darkened and smelling nutty – around 4 mins. Stir all this into the white sauce before combing with the pasta.
For the walnut and thyme topping, roughly chop a small handful of walnuts and scatter over the top of the bake with a few sprigs of thyme before the dish goes into the oven. Bake until the walnuts are nice and golden, and the thyme has crisped up.
Once baked, top it all off with a few dollops of fresh basil pesto to balance out the lavish flavours. You can get working on this while your mac ‘n’ cheese is bubbling away in the oven.
These kind of dishes aren’t for every day – they should be a treat, and always served with a good handful of fresh vegetables, whether it’s a simple chopped green salad or one made with lovely root vegetables.
So, get experimenting, and let us know in the comments what flavours you love in your mac ‘n’ cheese!