I was going to write a recipe for Macaroni Cheese here, but it occurred to me that this wasn’t very helpful. For one thing, it’s a pretty simple recipe and most people have one somewhere. For another, I don’t even have a recipe as such. This is one of those dishes that I have been cooking for as long as I can remember – an essential dish in my mother’s repetoire, along with bolognese sauce (and by extension, lasagne) and quiche.
So instead of a recipe, I wanted to turn this into a set of guidelines for gratins, which is all that macaroni cheese is, at heart. Richard Ehrlich’s compilation of Guardian columns ‘The Perfect …’ includes a wonderful 2 or 3 page set of instructions for the perfect potato gratin. I don’t think I need to be so prescriptive, though. The definition of a good gratin can be much broader and more forgiving than this.
The sauce of a gratin, the part that allows all that bubbling goodness to take place, is composed of either a bechamel sauce, or simply of milk or cream (and occasionally stock) combined with the starchy contents. Only raw potatoes are really starchy enough to thicken the sauce in the second case, so this method is restricted to gratin dauphinoise and its variations.
The best gratins are generally made with starchy contents (although fennel and chard gratins are both good). The homey, comforting nature of them – the need to serve them ‘family style’ from a communal dish – is enhanced with soft, starchy contents such as potatoes, pasta and root vegetables.
The original meaning of ‘au gratin’ was simply something browned under the grill, and this brown, crispy top remains the crucial element of this dish, and the reason for the wide, shallow gratin dish, giving a large area of crispy, with just the right amount of creamy underneath. The crispy top can either be achieved with cooking on the stove plus a stint under the grill, or by a long spell in the oven (which is the preferred method for gratin dauphinoise).
So, using these basic principles, we can create:
- Macaroni Cheese – sauce is bechamel with cheese (aka cheese sauce), starch is al dente cooked macaroni, and crispy top can be just cheese (for purists, and those who like lots of cheese – and who doesn’t) or cheese and breadcrumbs.
- Gratin dauphinoise – lots of dispute about this one, but basically just milk and/or cream as the sauce, raw potato slices layered with onions and cooked in the oven until the top is brown.
- Root vegetable gratin – slices of carrots, parsnips, swedes, cooked gently in a pan, combined with bechamel, then covered with breadcrumbs and baked.
And while away the whole autumn and winter with gooey, creamy, starchy dishes with crispy tops…Perfect.