The never-ending bombardment of emails about the “unprecedented times” we are living in, the ever-growing stack of assignments competing for attention, the uncertainty and tired speculation about “levels” – a term which previously only evoked thoughts of an Avicii song in a packed nightclub, dare I mention it. Listening to the news or scrolling through Twitter has taken on a corrosive quality, and our conversations are dominated by a certain virus and all of the stresses it carries for our daily lives. In a world so full of uncertainty, you might be craving something consistent, reliable and comforting. While some may roll their eyes at the suggestion
of cooking as some miraculous stress-eliminator, I urge you to have an open mind. After all, the shortage in food supplies during lockdown can at least partially be contributed to a growing interest in cooking and baking, as people yearned for something as stable and predictable as a recipe for a meal. I believe that now, amidst such anxiety and Twitter hysteria, that cooking a hearty and wholesome meal for yourself can provide you with a well needed sense of control and subsequent satisfaction, alleviating the stress that for whatever reason, you may be experiencing.
I cringe at the term “guilty pleasure” – believing that food, an essential substance that we need to survive, should never make us feel guilty. I do, however, like the idea of “comfort food” – something warm and nourishing on a cold winter’s evening, providing consolation and familiarity in its flavours. The preparation is simple, and eventually may even be committed to muscle memory, when making it feels no more demanding than brushing your teeth. Comfort food is not to be confused with “emotional eating” either; that gorging of tubs of ice cream after a breakup that we so often witness on television. Comfort food can soothe us emotionally, but not in the sense of some sort of sedated sugar coma – it is simply food that puts us at ease, makes us feel nurtured and cared for. For some it might be a bowl of soup with a crust of bread, or the beloved Centra sausage roll after a night out, for others some potato waffles or other
freezer-ready foods reminiscent of childhood. Personally, growing up, my mother seemed to intuitively know when I’d had a rough day or was feeling stressed about school. I’d slam the car door shut, cross my arms and glower out the window – so maybe it was more her basic understanding of body language as opposed to maternal intuition that made me feel so understood. Either way, on those days, she’d say “Come on and we’ll make mac and cheese.” Suddenly, I’d see a light at the end of my teenage angst-ridden tunnel. To this day, macaroni and cheese is my go-to comfort food when I’m not feeling my best.
For many of us, when tired and preoccupied with the many assignments on our to-do list, the thought of slaving away in the kitchen is just about the least appealing idea on earth. And if you feel like treating yourself to a take-away, I certainly won’t judge you. However, in chaotic and demanding times, it is more important than ever to take time to nourish yourself. Even when I feel exhausted, upset, or simply fed up, I always find the process of making mac and cheese holds some sort of cathartic quality for me. Mastering the roux sauce, flavouring it with cheese and mustard, and throwing in whatever ingredients we had to hand gave me immense satisfaction. I think of mac and cheese as the ultimate comfort meal. Warming and hearty, each component of this meal is like a hug for your taste buds. The bubbling top of melted cheese, on top of filling pasta and a rich cheesy sauce is a sure-fire way to elevate your mood. More
cynical readers may argue that cooking a meal like this when stressed out is merely procrastination, delaying the work that will inevitably catch up on you. However, we’ve all been told many times that breaks are necessary in order to absorb and recall information effectively. Trying out a new recipe is a great means of distracting yourself from that invasive loop of stressful thoughts about the future too. I firmly believe that closing the books for the 30-minutes it take to prepare this mac and cheese is an ideal way to give your mind a break from an information overload of scrolling on your phone intermittently, or getting sucked in by Netflix. Returning to the books with a satisfied belly and a fresh mind will benefit whatever tasks you have to do.
As with most recipes I share here, this mac and cheese is wonderfully versatile. Use whatever cheese you’ve got in the fridge, or a combination of many! Cheddar and parmesan are the classic favourites, but the choice is yours. Personally, I love to add some veg to this for a bit of colour. Tossing in a couple of handfuls of frozen peas always works well, as does a scattering of halved cherry tomatoes. A few chunks of broccoli or cauliflower also really compliment the cheesy flavours of the dish, and some love to add lightly sautéed diced onion too. Similarly, feel free to add some cooked meat if you want to bulk the meal up a little. Cooked or smoked
salmon is delicious, but scraps of chicken or ham are lovely too. You can even add anchovies, if that’s your thing.
As well as being convenient from an ingredient standpoint, I would also like to point out that if you don’t have a weighing scales, there’s no need to freak out. If you really want the dish to be spot on, invest the €10 or so it costs to buy one, but if not, measuring things by sight will be just fine. For instance, 30 grams of flour is the equivalent of about a quarter of a cup, and you can measure the milk out with a pint glass.
This recipe feeds three to four hungry college students as a main meal, but more if you’re just having it as a side or supper. It’s best eaten fresh but can be microwaved the next day if you’ve got leftovers. Although not low in fat, this dish provides you with a great portion of protein and calcium for your muscles and bones. The addition of vegetables elevates the nutritional value of the dish, so I highly recommend tossing in a few frozen peas or florets of cauliflower if you’ve got any. You can even serve it with a leafy side salad for a bit of contrast, but it’s equally enjoyable on its own in a bowl.
• 30g butter, plus extra for greasing
• 200g macaroni but any other kind of pasta will work just as well either.
• 30g plain flour
• 1 pint hot milk (I just heat it in the microwave)
• 175g cheese – a combination of strong flavours that melt well like cheddar and parmesan is best, but use what you have.
• 1 rounded tsp mustard (this isn’t essential, but I love the flavour it gives to offset the cheesiness)
• Any other fillings you like; frozen peas, cauliflower, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, cooked salmon, chicken or ham broken into pieces… Whatever you have to hand and are in the mood for!
1. Preheat your oven to 180°C Fan or Gas mark 6. Grease your baking dish with some butter -This just prevents the mac and cheese from sticking to the sides of the dish, making washing up a little bit easier. Cook your macaroni or chosen pasta in a saucepan
according to the instructions on the packet.
2. As the pasta cooks, you can start your roux sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan, and when melted, add in your flour. Stir together for about two minutes. It should grow slightly during this time and be a pale brown colour.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and add in the heated milk slowly, stirring to incorporate the roux completely. Once all of the milk has been added, return the pan to the heat and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. As the sauce boils, it should thicken. Reduce the
heat a little and let it simmer for five minutes to thicken and become smooth.
4. Remove the sauce from the heat once more and add the grated cheeses (hold back a handful of cheese to sprinkle on top later). Stir in the mustard too and season with salt and pepper.
5. Tip the drained pasta into the cooking dish, then pour over the cheesy sauce, giving it a little stir. Add in any additional fillings at this point, before sprinkling on the remaining cheese. Bake for about 15–20 minutes until golden and bubbling.