On a rainy December Saturday in Callendar, in the Trossachs in Scotland, I had this leeky macaroni for the first time. Well, it wasn’t this leeky mac, but it was a leeky baked macaroni cheese.
After we finished eating, I got chatting to the server, who was also the cook, about mac and cheese in all its glory. I told him about my fancy pants souffle mac, and he told me about the mac and cheese pie that you could get from the bakery in town. Imagine, a mac and cheese pie.
Anyways, that leeky mac has always stayed with me. Perhaps it was the setting, perhaps it was the conversation, perhaps it was the mac.
I do a couple of versions of this – one where you cook the leek in butter and use that as the base for your roux and then bechamel, and this one, based on a Nigella recipe, which I happen to think is a little more saucy and slightly lighter – if, indeed, we can use such a term when it comes to mac and cheese.
Topping it with some breadcrumbs – that you’ve fried in yet more butter – before baking finishes this beautifully, but my daughter doesn’t like breadcrumbs on her baked mac…actually, she doesn’t like her mac baked either, but that’s another story.
The thing, though, that I like about baked pastas is that you can do this in the morning, or even a couple of days ahead, and then bung in the oven when you’re ready for it – you’ll just need to remember to take it out of the fridge and let it come back to room temperature first.
The quantities here feed the 3 of us generously for Sunday supper with easily another serve leftover.
If you’re cooking for a crowd, double the butter, flour, cheese and pasta quantities, add an extra leek, and add an extra cup of leeky cooking water and an extra cup of milk to your sauce.
What you need
- 2 leeks, trimmed, cleaned and cut into 1cm slices
- 250ml white wine
- 500ml cold water
- 250ml full fat milk
- 40g butter
- 40g flour
- 1 good teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 25g grated parmesan
- 200g grated cheddar
- 250g penne
- Salt for the pasta water
What you do with it
- Pop your leeks into a wide pan – one that has a lid – along with the wine and the water. Bring to the boil and once they are bubbling away pop the lid on and let them continue to bubble away until they’re soft – about 10 minutes. You might need to lift the lid from time to time to give them a stir.
- Drain the leeks – retaining the cooking liquid – and set aside.
- Add about a cup or so of the leeky water to your milk – it should come to about 600ml in total.
- Pop your pasta water onto boil.
- Using the pan you used to cook your leeks, but making sure there are no stray bits of leek in it, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and mustard and whisk to form a roux. Cook it for a minute or so until it bubbles and thickens a little.
- Take the pan off the heat and pour in 500ml of the leeky milky liquid. As you pour start whisking and keep whisking to get rid of any lumps.
- Pop the pan back on medium heat, swap the whisk for a wooden spoon, and stir until the sauce is smooth and thick. If it thickens too quickly you can whisk in more of the liquid. Note – you’ll be stirring for about 10 minutes so best to have a glass of wine by your side.
- Once the consistency is a lovely thick and smooth bechamel, remove it from the heat. Season to taste.
- If your pasta water has come to the boil, add your pasta. Because this will be baked, you’ll be needing your pasta to be a tad more al dente than you might usually cook it.
- Back to your sauce, stir in the parmesan and most of the cheddar, saving some to scatter on top.
- Stir through the leek and take off the heat.
- Once the pasta is cooked, drain it – but keep a cup of the cooking water aside – and stir through the sauce. If you’re making a huge batch it might be easier to add half the sauce to the dish you’ll be baking it in, tip in the pasta, followed by the rest of the sauce – and then stir it all about.
- Add more of the pasta water if you need to – the sauce will thicken on standing so you want it quite runny – and set it aside until you’re ready to bake.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 220C, sprinkle over the remaining cheese, and cook for 20-25 minutes or until golden and bubbly.
- If you can wait, for the good of your tastebuds and the roof of your mouth, let it stand for 10 minutes or so before serving.