Mrs Jubb, who might have been a good cook with any encouragement, must have lost heart long ago. Tonight she set before us a pale macaroni cheese, and a dish of boiled potatoes, and I noticed a blancmange or 'shape', also of an indeterminate colour, in a glass dish on the sideboard.
Not enough salt, or perhaps no salt, I thought, as I ate the macaroni. And not really enough cheese.
Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
Not for the first time this year, I have happened across a book I feel I really should have read sooner. Thanks to the wonder that is Twitter, and the book fans who lie therein, I have finally discovered Barbara Pym. Excellent Women truly is excellent - witty, cleverly observed and with a wonderfully nuanced central character. I enjoyed it enormously.
Though I wish I'd read Pym's books years ago, I do feel that this week, as I enter my 30th year, is the ideal time to meet Mildred Lathbury, the titular excellent woman. Sensible and self-sufficient, she is 'useful' in a crisis - from helping resolve marital spats to knowing the correct placement of items at a jumble sale. But she is also constantly reminded of the things she assumed would be part of her life in her 30s that haven't happened: a husband and family. Reading Excellent Women, I was so aware of the young men in England who didn't return from the war, and the generation of women who were left behind. Though regularly laugh-out-loud funny, the book is also achingly sad, in a way I'm not sure my teenage self would have appreciated.
It seems only right, in terms of this recipe, that my first read of Excellent Women should fall on the same day as my first attempt at macaroni cheese. The little ones I nanny for had requested it for a Friday night treat, and I had to admit to them that it would be a new one for me. On moving to the UK, I did live, for six months, with a close friend who ate pasta and cheese multiple nights a week, often making me a bowl too. But macaroni cheese is something different. Gooey, rich and salty, it is, unsurprisingly, pure comfort in a dish.
Unfortunately, Mildred is rather disappointed with hers. It is served with potatoes, and is lacking in both salt and cheese. In fact, the book is full of references to food made when war rationing in England was still in force. She eats tins of baked beans, rubbery spaghetti she struggles to wind around her fork, endless mediocre cakes at church events and my favourite, a 'melancholy luncheon':
"...a dried-up scrap of cheese, a few lettuce leaves for which I could not be bothered to make any dressing, a tomato and a piece of bread and butter, followed by a cup of coffee made with coffee essence. A real woman's meal, I thought, with no suggestion of brandy afterwards..."
And so I've made some changes to her disappointing dinner. The addition of bacon is a no brainer (and lends the dish an almost carbonara-esque vibe), and the sauce needs plenty of cheese too, ideally of a couple of different varieties. You could add some peas as well, as my friend Anna does for her nannying charges, but mine won't touch the things, so they get this as is. With something green - a crisp salad, for me - on the side.
Makes 4 small or 3 generous portions
125g diced pancetta or lardons
230g dried macaroni
Generous pinch salt
50g salted butter
50g plain flour
300ml whole milk
50g grated sharp cheddar
75g grated mozzarella
Generous grating nutmeg
1tbsp grated parmesan cheese
Small frying pan
Ovenproof dish - I used one that is 25cm x 15cm x 4cm deep, but you should use whatever size you have
1. Preheat your oven to 200C. Warm the frying pan over a medium heat and tip in the lardons/pancetta. Fry them gently for around 15 minutes, while you get on with the rest of the dish. Return to give them a stir every now and then, to ensure they don't burn. Don't add any butter or oil to this pan - any necessary fat will come from the lardons.
2. Fill one of the saucepans with water and bring to the boil. Once it is bubbling enthusiastically, add a generous pinch of salt and pour in the macaroni. Cook until the pasta is tender but still has a little bite - which should be around seven minutes. Drain and set aside.
3. In the meantime, melt the butter in the second saucepan and, once it is bubbling, tip in the flour. Stir with the wooden spoon for three minutes, to cook off the taste of the flour. Pour in the milk and whisk until the sauce thickens. Don't worry if this takes a couple of minutes; it will happen very suddenly, so do keep an eye on it and keep whisking, or it will become lumpy.
4. Over a very low heat, whisk in the cheese until it melts and the sauce becomes stringy. Remove from the heat and add the nutmeg.
5. Tip the pasta and lardons (and their fat) into the cheese sauce, and stir well until the ingredients are distributed evenly. Scoop the whole gooey lot into the greased ovenproof dish.
6. Top with breadcrumbs and grated parmesan and bake for 20 minutes, until the cheese sauce is bubbling and the dish is browned in patches on top. Sort out a salad or drinks before bringing the dish to the table, giving the molten cheese time to cool a little.
If it makes your life easier, you can make big batches of this, bake it and then freeze it. When you want to eat it, put it back in the oven to bake again until the cheese sauce is bubbling.