Are these additions what classic mac and cheese has been missing?

Are these additions what classic mac and cheese has been missing?
Middle Eastern mac and cheese, flavored with za'atar. (Kate Krader / Bloomberg)

Pasta is a food that makes most people look backward. The best-loved versions are ones made in the past by someone’s grandmother or great aunt. No one likes to see the words “new” and “improved” in front of “mac and cheese.”

It’s a brave chef that decides to upgrade a classic pasta.

That’s where Yotam Ottolenghi comes in. The revered restaurateur and food writer has a singular way of picking up a treasured dish and seeing an opportunity to insert an unlikely flavor or two without disturbing the food’s integrity. In his most recent cookbook, “Ottolenghi Flavor,” the Israeli-born cook and his test-kitchen assistant Ixta Belfrage redefined cacio e pepe by adding a hefty sprinkling of za’atar. The tangy mix of dried herbs and spices, invariably including thyme, oregano, sumac and sesame seeds (recipes vary around the Middle East), is one of the chef’s signature flavorings. The cheesy, buttery pasta instantly became livelier.

“It was a scary point, because it’s a recipe that already works,” said Ottolenghi at the time. “How do you change a perfect dish?”

The question arises again in his new book, “Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love. Recipes to Unlock the Secrets of Your Pantry, Fridge and Freezer” by Noor Murad and Ottolenghi (Clarkson Potter; $32). In it, the pair take on another classic (many would say perfect) pasta: mac and cheese.

 

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The book, which highlights the behind-the-scenes work at the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, came into focus during the pandemic. “The first lockdown of 2020 is what sparked the narrative for Shelf Love, where we were all raiding our kitchens to create dishes using humble ingredients but with the wow-factor that we provide,” said Ottolenghi in an email.

The book comes in soft cover, stocked like a trusty handbook with how-to pictures. It’s divided into the areas of the kitchen we’ve come to know far too well: pantry, refrigerator and freezer. There are captivating recipes for confit tandoori chickpeas and sweet potato shakshuka with sriracha butter.

But for those of us who are drawn like a magnet to an Ottolenghi pasta recipe, the first order of business is his M.E. (Middle Eastern) mac and cheese with za’atar pesto.

The genius of the recipe starts in Step 1, when the pasta cooks in milk – which becomes the sauce. That trick obviates the need to drain the fusilli and add flour, which can render the dish bland. The pasta’s starch thickens the milk, and the addition of feta and cheddar enrich it even further. But what really enhances the dish is a cilantro lemon pesto spiked with – you guessed it – za’atar. The spice mix does a heroic job of balancing the richness of the pasta.

Murad, who is half-English and half-Middle Eastern, said there’s always room for classic mac and cheese. But the Middle Eastern flair delivered by the za’atar, feta, cumin and fried onions that garnish the dish are, for her, “what mac and cheese was missing all along.”

The following recipe is adapted from “Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love” by Murad and Ottolenghi.

Tester’s note from Ottolenghi: You can make the fried onion or shallot garnish by slicing the alliums, tossing them with cornstarch and frying them in oil, or you can use store-bought fried onions. In addition, the best, most fragrant ground cumin is made by toasting seeds and then grinding them with a mortar, but you can substitute ground cumin.

 

M.E. Mac and Cheese with Za’atar Pesto

In the recipe, the pasta cooks in the milk, which is brilliant. (Kate Krader / Bloomberg)

Serves 4-6

Mac and Cheese

10½ ounces dried cavatappi or fusilli pasta, or a comparably-sized pasta shape

2½ cups whole milk, more if needed

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into roughly 1¼-inch cubes

3 garlic cloves, minced

⅛ teaspoon ground turmeric

1½ teaspoon ground cumin (see tester’s note, above)

5 tablespoons heavy cream

1 1/3 cups coarsely grated mature cheddar

6 ounces Greek feta, roughly crumbled

Salt and freshly ground pepper

½ cup crispy onions or shallots (see tester’s note, above)

 

Za’atar Pesto

1 large lemon

3 tablespoons za’atar

1 cup chopped cilantro

1 garlic clove, chopped

1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

6 tablespoons olive oil

In a large saucepan, combine the pasta, milk, butter, garlic and turmeric. Add 1½ cups water, 1 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then turn the heat down to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-12 minutes, or until the pasta is just al dente and the sauce has thickened from the pasta starches. (It will still be quite saucy.) If necessary, add a little more milk, depending on how thick you like your mac and cheese. Turn the heat down to low and stir in the cumin, cream and both cheeses until they are nicely melted.

Meanwhile, make the pesto. Finely grate the lemon to get 1½ teaspoons of zest. Then use a small, sharp knife to peel the lemon and cut out the segments. Roughly chop the segments and set in a small bowl with the zest. In a mini-processor, combine the za’atar, cilantro, garlic, pine nuts, ⅛ teaspoon of salt, a good grind of pepper and half the oil. Pulse a few times until you have a coarse paste. Add to the chopped lemon in the bowl and stir in the remaining oil.

Transfer the mac and cheese to a large serving platter with a lip or a shallow bowl, dot all over with the pesto, top with the crispy onions and serve.

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