Variations on a theme: mac & cheese three ways

Not only is the weather turning, but because we’re locked in thanks to Covid-19, we’re looking for comfort food.  I shared these ideas way back in 2014.  I was reminded about them the other day, when there was a “debate” on the merits (or otherwise) of macaroni cheese.  There’s an even split between love and hate.

Funnily enough, this dish rarely appeared on our family table – my father did not like white sauces – a foundation of any good macaroni cheese. The Husband, when I first met him, viewed macaroni cheese with great suspicion: his mother’s version, he says, was bullet proof!  It was that solid.

Variations on a theme

Over the years, I have made various versions, partly because it’s an easy and warming meal to make.  Because one can have too much of a good thing, I have at least three variations on this universal favourite.  None of them actually with macaroni except, perhaps the last, now that I make fresh pasta.

Not negotiable:  Béchamel

All three of the variations have two things in common – pasta, obviously, and a Béchamel (white) sauce. The choice of pasta is personal and depends on the variation. The secret to a really flavourful Béchamel sauce is to infuse the milk with a bay leaf, carrot, clove of garlic and a couple of peppercorns before making the sauce.

Depending on the quantity I need, take 250 – 500ml of milk, and add the bits I’ve mentioned.  Blast it in the microwave for one to two minutes and then leave it to infuse for a while.

In case you need a reminder – white sauce is butter, melted, to which you add flour to make a roux; then add the warm milk and cook to the consistency you want.  Finally, add the cheese and other ingredients.

My Mac & Cheese Epiphany at the Brooklyn  Diner, NYC

A few years ago, on a rainy Sunday in January, when I was in New York City for a conference, colleagues and I were cold and hungry after a day of site-seeing. We needed supper and happened on the Brooklyn Diner, off Times Square.  As we sat waiting for supper, I remember watching the Nasdaq ticker and the constantly rising US debt through the window.


Although a lone South African among a group of Aussies, we had one thing in common: we hated the cold.  Two of us, at least, just wanted the kind of food we could make at home.  There it was: Mac & Cheese!

When it arrived, it wasn’t what we had expected: it didn’t look very appetising.  Tagliatelle smothered in the palest of creamy sauces, slopped on the plate.  It’s not the baked Mac & Cheese that appears on the current menu.  While they say you eat with your eyes, this was just the most delicious, macaroni cheese I had tasted in years – creamy, cheesy and tangy. Just what the doctor ordered. I make my own version and there are two secrets: fresh, egg-rich pasta and the sauce that is made with whole milk, butter and at least three cheeses – and hot English Mustard.

Through trial and error, I have worked out that the best cheeses are cottage cheese, and a really mature, tangy cheddar.  Finish of with some Parmesan or really mature, hard, sharp Boerenkaas to grate over the top. Full cream yoghurt in addition to milk, it adds a certain depth and piquancy to the flavour. In terms of quantities, that’s a matter of taste, and how tangy you like the sauce.  I also help it along with the addition of a quarter to a half teaspoon of hot English mustard powder.


Make sure that the sauce is not too thick – you want it to coat the tagliatelle. This is a saucy meal that is not dry. Cook the pasta, drain it, and serve, generously coated in the rich, tangy, creamy cheese sauce.

Enjoy it either with or without a salad.

Broccoli Mac & Cheese

This is the healthier variation of macaroni cheese.  I make it with a mild cheddar cheese sauce.  Before I made my own pasta, I used penne. The variation, here, is the broccoli and the blue cheese. Break the broccoli (or broccolini in this case) into florets/steam and then toss with the pasta and cheese sauce.

Pile into a large dish so that people can help themselves or into individual bowls. Either way, top with blue cheese.

Fiona’s “famous” baked mac & cheese*2014-02-09 09.53.17-1

This is my “original” recipe “created” before I happened on the Brooklyn Diner or invented Broccoli & Blue.  Of course, it includes white sauce and either farfalatte (bow ties), penne or macaroni, depending on what’s in the cupboard. As with the other two, it takes a good quantity of cheese sauce.  What makes this different is that I usually include sautéed onion and sweet bell peppers (red and green), chopped bacon (optional), a little garlic and some fresh oreganum. If I have onions in the garden, I skip the onion at this stage and use the green leaves and add them later.

So, to assemble this, cook the pasta according to the manufacturer’s instructions, drain and return to the pot; add the sautéed vegetables (and the fresh onion leaves if using) and then stir in the cheese sauce. Place all of this into a large oven proof dish. If you like, top with a layer of sliced tomatoes followed by a generous layer of cheese.  End with a sprinkling of Parmesan which will give the top a lovely crunch. Place under the grill until golden brown and serve!

*The “famous” bit is because we have had spur-of-the-moment invitations to supper and taken this along and it turned into the hit of the evening….

If you’d like these ideas and they work for you, buy me a coffee?

Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa

Photo: Selma

Post script

  • I’m participating in blogpal @tracyork’s April challenge of sharing a post every day during April – on the Hive blockchain.  I succeeded last year – on Steemit from which the new blockchain “hived off”… and…
  • It seems a good way to constructively use the time during a compulsory lock down, right?  For more about this initiative, please check out Traci’s post.

  • If you’d also like to both join the challenge and post from the WordPress platform to the Hive blockchain, sign up here.

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