Hot food: Mac and cheese

Jill Dupleix
Comfort never goes out of fashion: Mac and cheese.
Comfort never goes out of fashion: Mac and cheese. Photo: Edwina Pickles

What is it?

A much-loved combination of short tube pasta and gloopy cheese sauce, baked until melting and bubbling under a browned, crusty top. What was once Sunday night tea is now an individual serving on some of the hippest tables in town.

Where is it?

Long before Heston Blumenthal was serving macaroni cheese in a hollowed-out bowl of Berkswell cheddar on his How To Cook Like Heston TV series, mac and cheese was on the menu at Rockpool Bar & Grill, and at the original Rockpool before that. "People love it because it tastes great and it's comfort food," says Neil Perry, who uses cheddar, parmesan and gruyere to create its heavenly richness.

NSW

Meanwhile, at the Prohibition cocktail-themed Palmer & Co, mac and cheese proves to be just the thing at 2am when you're two Sazeracs down and ravenously hungry. "It's comforting and it's warming," says manager Marty Campaign. "And melted cheese is the best smell in the world."

The kitchen at The Abercrombie, which bills itself as "a Scottish disco serving deep-fried everything", shows a touch of genius in somehow managing to form macaroni cheese into balls, before crumbing and deep-frying them. Or head east to Panama House in Bondi for an un-deep-fried truffled mac and cheese on the side of your sticky baby back ribs. "It's probably our biggest-selling item," says chef Patrick Killalea. "And it's a great hangover cure, with a Bloody Mary."

VICTORIA

It's a similar meat plus mac'n'cheese formula at Meatmother, where folks can add a side of mac cheese to a tray of slow-cooked barbecued beef brisket or pulled pork with Texas toast and pickles. ''With a focus on southern United States cuisine, we had no choice but to put mac and cheese on the menu,'' Canadian head chef Yannick Dagenais says. ''It takes me back to when my mom use to make it for me.''

Then there's the Swiss cheese and macaroni croquettes at Virginia Plain. Chef Andy Harmer makes up the macaroni cheese using Rolf Beeler's gruyere and parmigiano-like sbrinz, sets it in the refrigerator, cuts it into small blocks, then crumbs and deep-fries it. ''It's all to do with the quality of the cheese,'' he says. ''We just can't take it off the menu.''

Why do I care?

Because it's winter, and because this is comfort food plus, squared and multiplied.

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Can I do it at home?

Probably better than a chef can. The golden rule is to work out how much cheese to use - and then double it.

Sourcing

NSW

Rockpool Bar & Grill, 66 Hunter Street, Sydney 8078 1900

Panama House, 251 Bondi Road, Bondi 9365 0839

The Abercrombie, 100 Broadway, Sydney 9280 2178

Palmer & Co, Abercrombie Lane, Sydney 9240 3172

VICTORIA

Virginia Plain, 31 Flinders Lane, city, 9290 0400.

Meatmother, 167 Swan Street, Richmond, 9041 5393.

Rockwell and Sons, 288 Smith Street, Collingwood, 8415 0700.

Rockpool Bar & Grill, Crown Complex, Southbank, 8648 1900.

Make it - Mac and cheese

Add chopped ham or crisp bacon to the sauce if you like, and serve with a green salad.

300g short macaroni pasta

2 tbsp dried breadcrumbs; e.g. panko

2 tbsp parmesan, grated

Sauce

50g butter

50g plain flour

650ml milk, heated

75g parmesan, grated

75g gruyere or cheddar, grated

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

ΒΌ tsp paprika

sea salt and pepper

1. Cook the pasta in plenty of simmering, salted water until tender. Drain well.

2. Heat the oven to 220 degrees. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan, sprinkle with the flour, and cook over low heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Gradually add half the heated milk, stirring well, until the sauce thickens, then gradually add the remaining milk, stirring, until thick but runny.

3. Add the cheeses, mustard, paprika, sea salt and pepper and simmer for 3 minutes, adding a little more milk or water if it gets too thick. Add the pasta and toss to coat, then divide between four lightly oiled ovenproof ramekins or pots. Mix the breadcrumbs with two tablespoons of parmesan and scatter over the top. Bake for 20 minutes or until bubbling and browned.

Serves 4