What is comfort food? There are so many different types, and for me each person in my life provides a different recipe. In fact, sometimes if it weren’t for the person cooking it, I probably wouldn’t eat. (My grandmother’s roast, cooked far past well-done, comes to mind.)
True comfort food probably isn’t really even cooked by you, for you. It’s made for you with great love and tenderness, and without becoming melodramatic, you can taste it in the food. Take for example Auntie Jo’s spaghetti sauce. I have tried to re-create it, my mother has tried to re-create it, and it cannot be done. Only Jo can make this sauce. It’s as simple as that. It’s probably also the only food I would actually consider drinking a glass of milk with. I hate milk, and yet somehow it just goes well with this meal.
Comfort food from my mum and dad are totally different. For me, my mum’s comfort food is chicken potpie, her chilli or, bizarrely, caprese salad. Salad has no place in comfort food, I know, but at least this salad is full of cheese. From my dad, it’s definitely cheeseburgers. Or store-bought tortellini with store-bought alfredo sauce, heated up in the microwave. This was every other Friday night of my childhood, and it was fantastic.
Being a big girl now, I occasionally have to cook myself comfort food. Or, in other scenarios, cook it for others. I always fall back to pasta when I need something stick-to-your-ribs style. Lately, I’ve been into making homemade macaroni and cheese, and I promise that when you do this, you’ll never go back to Kraft Dinner.
This is super easy and flexible, you can make it as fancy or simple as you want, and you can go around knowing that if something happens one day and you need to comfort someone, you can do it with this recipe.
Pancetta (President’s Choice has a great pre-chopped option, but smoked bacon works in a pinch too)
2-3 cheeses like cheddar, Asiago, Havarti, etc. Grate about 2 cups of a variety of them
¼ cup panko breads crumbs
Equal parts fat and flour (some from the pancetta, then a bit of butter)
½ - 1 cup of cream
1 can of tomatoes
Little scoop of smoked paprika
Little scoop of dry mustard powder
Little bit of garlic powder or onion powder
Salt and pepper to taste, plus a little extra salt for your pasta water
Macaroni noodles, of course. I’d say about half a bag for 4 people
Take none of those amounts too seriously. I never measure anything; these are guesses from my head. Just try those amounts and adjust as you go.
Start by getting your pasta water boiling. Always salt this water, it flavours your pasta and is an important step. You’re making this to comfort someone, so don’t cut corners! The water should taste like the sea, and about 2 tbsp of salt at least.
In the meantime, grate the cheeses and render the fat from the pancetta in another pot. Rendering fat means cook the pancetta slowly enough that the fat starts to come out in the pot. We aren’t going to drain this fat; we need it for flavour and to make the roux. (You remember how to do that, don’t you? You learned how in Chicken Potpie.)
Keep an eye on that pasta, you really don’t want to cook it all the way through. Cook it about half way, with a fair amount of bite still left. While I think about that, grease a baking dish or several ramekins and heat your oven to 375°. Drain your pasta and concentrate on the cheese sauce now.
|Macaroni and Cheese... In a ramekin, because I'm fresh like that.|
Cheese sauce is too easy to handle- I can’t believe how long I had been making cheese sauce from a package, when all it takes it a couple steps. Start with your roux- you’ve got some fat from the pancetta in the pot, now add a scoop of butter and equal parts flour. We’re talking about 2 tbsps each here. (For a better lesson on roux, visit Chicken Potpie) Stir that up and let the raw flour taste cook off.
At this point, add you canned tomatoes, almost all the cheese (save a handful for the topping) and the dried spices. Also add the cream. Stir until thickened. Taste your sauce and see if it needs anything. No? Perf! Add it to the pasta and dump that into your ramekins or baking dish. Almost done!
Finally, top your dish with the rest of the cheese, panko, a sprinkle of paprika and maybe even some Parmesan. Bake in the oven for twenty minutes, and then throw the broiler on for two minutes. Keep an eye on it with the broiler… I always forget about things and burn the arse off the top of my food. For a long time I didn’t have a toaster, I just broiled my toast in the oven. I ate burnt toast almost every day for a year.
Wait until you taste this… You can also do white cheeses with lobster instead of pancetta, you can do a smoky bacon with Gouda and Havarti; the options are endless! And never be shy about adding more chilli powder or hot sauce.
It’s time to banish Kraft Dinner from your diet.