This is one of my favourite all-time childhood meals.
I loved coming home to find a pot of Mac-Raff n’ Cheese bubbling away in the oven. My stepdad, Sean, would make it in our giant Corning Vision Ware pot (Do you guys remember those? The glass pots that came in a couple of colours? Ours was brown.), so if I peered through the oven door I could see the tomato sauce simmering up to mingle with the cheese-coated pasta.
For a long time I thought it was a creation of Sean’s, him being the head chef in our blended family. And what a chef he was! We were well-fed kids because that man knows his way around a kitchen. Lamb and mint sauce, chicken and rice with cream gravy, roast beef with all the fixings. There’s a reason I love to go home, even today. But when I was home a few months ago, my mum revealed that she was actually the mastermind behind the recipe.
She’s a Macdonald; he’s a Rafferty. So we were the Mac-Raff household. Hence the name of this dish.
It is a smart meal from a parent’s perspective. Quick, filling and can be assembled during the day and left at the ready to bake closer to dinner time when everyone is home and getting hungry. As an adult, I’ve also found it to be fantastic as a freezer meal. Since I generally make enough for a family of six (apparently, I am incapable of cooking for one or two like a normal singleton. But it’s OK because I love leftovers.) I have got into the habit of splitting the mac n’ cheese into two casserole dishes and jamming one into my freezer for later.
I made it a couple of months ago when the days were still crisp and cold. Then it warmed up and I wondered if people’s appetites for hearty, homemade macaroni and cheese had waned, so I kind of put it on the back burner (nyuk nyuk). And then we had another, delayed, blast of winter. Oh! I thought, a second chance! And then, uh, well, let’s just say I lost track of time.
But I think this is a good recipe to have on hand. Although there is no official recipe. I, like my parents, kind of make it up as I go along each time depending on what I have lying around. But, fundamentally, it is macaroni and cheese with tomato sauce on the bottom that is all baked together in a casserole dish with a layer of cheese on top.
And it is far greater than the sum of its parts. Tomato sauce = good. Pasta doused in cheese sauce = good. That layer where the two mix = perfection.
I like to take a couple of big spoonfuls and top with some cracked black pepper, then eat it with a spoon.
But the real beauty of this is that it is infinitely adaptable. Don’t like the cheeses suggested? Use what you’ve got or what you like. Don’t have fresh herbs? Use a pinch of dried basil. Use your family’s own secret tomato sauce recipe for that matter. This is about using what you’ve got and experimenting with what you think it will taste good.
Mac-Raff n’ Cheese
Tomato Sauce base:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
- 1 14 oz. can crushed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- pinch sugar
- 1/4 cup basil (or combination of mostly basil and some parsley), roughly chopped.
- salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in a pot over medium heat. When hot, add onion and saute until transluscent. Add garlic and stir for about a minute until fragrant. Using the can lid, drain the tomato liquid from the can of whole tomatoes into the pot. Let the liquid reduce by half and then add in the tomatoes. I dice them one by one in my palm using a basic dinner knife as I like small chunks of tomato. Another trick is to use kitchen scissors and just cut them up in the can. Add to the pot. Then add the crushed tomatoes. Stir in sugar and balsamic and let simmer until it has reduced and thickened. You don’t want it too thick because it will reduce further in the oven. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in herbs.
Macaroni and cheese:
- 500 grams pasta (penne, macaroni or whatever tubular pasta you have sitting around)
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 5 cups grated cheese, divided (I like a combination of asiago, cheddar, provolone and a bit of Parmesan; but I’m not afraid to use what’s already in the fridge.)
- 3 cups milk
- salt and pepper to taste
Cook pasta according to package directions. As the pasta boils, start on the cheese sauce. Melt butter over medium-low heat in a pot. When frothy and bubbling, add flour and mix with a whisk until well blended. Continue cooking for a couple of minutes to cook out the raw flour taste. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. After it has thickened slightly, add 4 cups of the grated cheese. (I usually switch to a wooden or plastic spoon at this point.) Stir until melted, then add salt and pepper to taste. (If it is too thick, splash in a bit more milk.) Remove from heat.
Drain cooked pasta and return to pot. Top with cheese sauce and mix together.
Preheat oven to 425F.
Put tomato sauce in base of casserole dish. Top with macaroni and cheese and then sprinkle over remaining one cup of cheese. Bake covered for 45 minutes to an hour (depending on the size of your casserole dish). Remove lid and bake another 10 to 20 minutes until cheese is bubbling on top.
This is fantastic with a nice green salad.
Note: To make ahead, assemble the entire dish but stop just before baking it. Wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, this can be stored in the freezer. To cook later, let thaw and then bake as directed.