Chifferi, gomiti, lumache or just elbow macaroni, the Italian tubular pasta with or without ridges is part of the famed American duo – Mac and Cheese. With an almost celebrity status across generations, cultures and nationalities, the dish has become almost synonymous with the idea of a quick winter meal that requires minimal effort.
A simple dish that can have a number of variations based on your taste buds, patience and time at disposal.
The history of this dish can be best described as opaque. It was definitely not created or has not originated in Italy, in fact, a four-cheese pasta dish is the only one that bears the closest resemblance to today’s Mac and Cheese. However, legend has it that erstwhile US President Thomas Jefferson tasted the dish in France and took the recipe home, many, many moons ago. That’s how it found its way from Europe to the US and is the relatively brief history of this comfort food.
It is, indeed, a well travelled pasta. If you have lived in the Middle East even for a year, Koshari, the well known Egyptian Street food would be very familiar. Apparently, it is a colonial legacy that took the Indian khichdi or khichri (rice and lentil porridge), added in an Italian element via the elbow macaroni, topped with tomato sauce, coriander, cumin and fried onions or birista. Yet another delicious comfort food with the near-perfect pasta that traps sauce in its gently curved hollows to give you a dish that is smooth, flavoured and loaded with sauce.
You can substitute it with other types of pasta including penne, fusili, conchiglie or rigatoni but all of them might turn out drier than the gomiti or elbow macaroni. The reason is its ability to trap sauce in its pipe-like structure, also it is a bit thicker and offers more of a bite in each warm mouthful.
I, personally, like to stick with gomiti, even a chifferi is fine, which is a ridged version but because they are bigger, not as much of the sauce stays put. A perfect pasta dish should have enough sauce left on the dish to be wiped off with a final piece of toasted brioche, or in my case a hot pav – at least, that’s what I feel. So, a dish that fails this litmus test of comfort food doesn’t make the mark for me. If you are going to bin the calorie counter, put your heart into it.
Here’s my version of the classic American dish that has drawn inspiration from my Indian roots, so there’s a strong love of herbs and the UAE, for its access to the fabulous spices of the Middle East.
Before I start with recipe, there’s a step in here that’s the true secret of any creamy cheese sauce, so do not substitute or ignore. I am talking about ‘roux’. It will thicken and smoothen your sauce like magic, trust me on this.
As the weather turns, flowers bloom, gardens turn lush, barbecue grills get cleaned, guitars are re-strung and beanies worn, make this recipe for family and friends for a December evening in, for the perfect ‘Dubai state of mind’.
Mac and Cheese (Dubai style)
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes
600 gms elbow macaroni
1.5 l full fat milk
500 gms cheddar cheese, grated
200 gms parmesan cheese, grated
3 tsp salt
3 tsp pepper (optional)
¼ nutmeg, ground fine (optional)
1 tsp dried parsley (optional)
2 tsp zaatar mix (Levantine thyme and sesame seed based seasoning)
¼ cup bread crumbs (store bought, or fresh, toasted bread powdered)
3 tbsp all purpose fine flour
3 tbsp full fat butter
In a deep pan, on a medium flame, add the flour. Lightly sauté for a minute or so. Add the butter and stir constantly but gently, till it starts to foam a bit. Lower the flame. Add the milk slowly. Stirring carefully until blended.
Now add the cheddar cheese and stir, again. Do it over a low to medium flame. As this is being done, in another large vessel add hot water and place on a high flame. Add 2 tablespoons of salt to the water and when it begins to boil, add the macaroni. Check the packaging for cooking time based on the texture you prefer. Don’t make it too mushy, otherwise it ends up as a bit of a mess. Still delicious though! Anywhere between 9 to 12 minutes should be fine.
Once done, drain the pasta and set aside. No need to add oil or butter, it will be fine in the sauce. We don’t want to add any flavour layers and ruin the integrity of the dish.
Please remember to stir the sauce.
Once the sauce is reasonably blended, add the cooked pasta into it. Add salt based on taste preference, along with nutmeg and parsley.
Mix well till the pasta is well coated and the sauce looks smooth.
Preheat oven at 175C. Pour the pasta and sauce into a large, deep glass or ceramic baking dish. Smooth the surface.
Sprinkle the bread crumbs and parmesan cheese as a layer on top. You can increase or decrease the quantity based on your liking, but the amount I have given is minimal. Anything lesser would detract from the taste of the end dish.
Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, till the bread crumbs turn golden. Remove. Plate. Serve with some fried bacon bits (optional) as garnish.
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