Casanova and the Mac ‘n Cheese
According to his autobiographical writings, legendary 18th century loverboy Casanova was as enamoured with the pleasures of food as he was by the women he bedded. A favourite of his was macaroni “prepared by a good Neapolitan cook”. He allegedly wrote a sonnet to the pasta in 1734. On page 350 of Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food by Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban, it reads: Over the course of his long and adventurous life, Giacomo Casanova discovered in Chiogga the existence of “Macaroni Academies,” poets’ clubs that also served a more important purpose as places of conviviality where the members competed in improvised poetic duels, all revolving around the theme of macaroni. Each session would culminate, logically enough, in a hearty meal of macaroni.
Inspired by her own escapades, Lee-Ann Orton has created a sonnet-worthy version of an Italian macaroni and cheese with rosemary, gorgonzola and fig.
I describe my relationship with mac and cheese as a love affair, but if I really had to unpack it, it’s more of an emotional ‘hug’ that I need from time to time (and I spend a lot of my time trying to minimise these ‘hugs’).
I think my first memory of this classic is my mother’s “Macaroni in die oond” – a baked version with an egg-based sauce, best enjoyed with ketchup – that she would make on a Monday and that would become after-school meals ’til Wednesday. Then there was my father’s “Wit pasta”– an Alfredo-esque, béchamel-based, cheese and bacon penne creation that he would make when Mom was away. Both immense.
These days my go-to vice is the Woolies microwave version. Until recently I used to haute cuisine it up with truffle oil until I overdid that, and now it’s back to olive oil drizzle and a solid layer of black pepper: the quickest fix, that I don’t broadcast too widely.
There are countless versions of mac and cheese out there, believe me, I’ve tested many of them, and no matter how ‘bad’ some of them can be, no mac and cheese is truly ever awful. I mean it’s cheese and pasta at the core. And when you take care to use GOOD cheese and GOOD pasta, and a few other tricks in between, and layer it all up with love… you’ll make magic.
When making my own mac, I yo-yo between heavy + cheesy and lighter + silky. For the cheesier versions I go béchamel, loads of mature cheddar and a dash of cream. For light and silky I go with a white wine reduction, chicken stock and parmesan rind mix and four kinds of hard cheese… and cream cheese… and truffle.
For my romantic ode to mac and cheese I’m inspired by a recent visit to S’mac, in New York’s East Village, and its Parisienne adaptation with fig, brie and rosemary. For an Italian rendition I’ve replaced the brie with gorgonzola and walnuts and instead of the conventional elbow macaroni, I’ve used strozzapreti. The name for these pasta twists translates as ‘priest strangler’ – inspired by the legend that greedy priests would eat the strozzapreti, given to them by locals, so quickly that they might choke on it.* So take your time eating it. Strozzapreti works well with light, smooth sauces that cling to the shape.
Rosemary, Gorgonzola and Fig Mac and Cheese
Minutes to Prepare: 20
Minutes to Cook: 40
Number of Servings: 8
500g Strozzapreti (or similar)
2-1/2 cups good chicken stock
2-1/2 T all-purpose flour
2 T unsalted butter
250g gorgonzola, cubed
100g Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
6 t preserved figs, diced OR fig jam works just as well
8 t fresh rosemary, 1 sprig and the rest chopped
freshly ground white pepper
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 cup breadcrumbs made from good stale bread
Drizzle of olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 200° C.
2. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and cook the pasta until al dente, 8 – 10 minutes. Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water. Place in a large mixing bowl. Add a touch of olive oil and toss lightly.
3. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Remove from heat.
4. In a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Reduce the heat to low and whisk in the flour, cooking for 3-4 minutes. Be careful not to brown the mixture. Slowly add the stock bit by bit, whisking constantly so that you don’t end up with any lumps.
5. Add one large sprig of rosemary, the crushed garlic and white pepper, continue stirring for another 5 mins over a low heat to infuse the flavours.
6. Remove rosemary sprig and add chopped rosemary.
7. Add the parmigiano and provolone. Stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is slightly thickened.
8. Taste and season again with salt and pepper.
9. Remove from the heat.
10. In a food processor blitz the walnuts and stale bread to a medium textured crumb, I add rosemary here too.
11. Grab your baking dish and ladle some sauce in the bottom. You’ll be constructing your mac and cheese in layers. Repeat this sequence until you’ve filled your dish: sauce + pasta + evenly dotted knobs of gorgonzola alternated with pieces or teaspoons of fig.
12. Before heading to the oven, cover the top of the mac with the walnut crumb, piling it as high as you can.
13. Bake for approximately 10 – 15 minutes, or really until the crumb topping is golden brown and the rest is bubbling.
14. Remove from oven, drizzle with good olive oil and enjoy, it’s a goodie!