Cheshire’s Arley Hall grounds have been hosting Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Adventure. My family went on a chilly Potter pilgrimage to the attraction; I dog-sat and kept the home fires burning. Next day I paid my personal homage to a hero of my own… with strong Arley links.
OK, I didn’t follow Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 recipe for Mac and Cheese. Not because it is no longer serviceable but because I sought the more luxurious cosseting Nigella Lawson brings with her Crab Mac ’n’ Cheese from her wonderful Cook, Eat, Repeat (Chatto & Windus, £25). Poor relation of the lobster variant? Think again, a long as the crab element’s a super fresh mix of white and brown meat it knocks the claws off the rival combo.
Picture above, full ingredients and method to follow, but back to Mrs Raffald (or Raffauld). I first came across her when primordial Northern Quarter pioneers, The Market Restaurant, named a private dining room after this formidable woman, who became such an entrepreneurial force in 18th century Manchester. A previous Nigella tome might have tilted at irony in its How To Be a Domestic Goddess title, but that fitted Raffald like a leathern glove as fledgling housekeeper at Arley Hall, outside Nantwich.
The 800 original recipes she developed there – including a precursor of the Eccles cake and the first written recipes for piccalilli and crumpets – were the base for her classic, best-selling The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), which rivalled contemporary Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published 20 years before. Both seminal cookbooks were revered in the 20th century by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, whose own cookbooks influenced the Market Restaurant’s bistro offering.
Since the dawn of time (or should that be cheese) there had been global dishes that paired dairy and pasta, but it took the Doncaster-born 26 year old to pin down To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese. All the elements are in place…
“Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill (ie a quarter of a pint) of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.”
Parmesan, imported from Italy, was then a luxury item. A century earlier, as the Great Fire of London threatened his home, my beloved Samuel Pepys buried wheels of parmesan along with other treasures.
By the time Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families (superior to Mrs Beeton) came along the familiar béchamel sauce version had consolidated the dish’s popularity and Cheddar and Gruyere now contended for the gloopy cheese element in what was universally known as Macaroni Cheese.
That was certainly still its name in the 1930s when an affordable mass-produced version from KRAFT featuring processed cheese and dried pasta was vital in keeping poverty-stricken Americans fed during the Great Depression. It was well suited to war time rations, too, and later student self-catering. So Mac and Cheese inexorably became a Yankee institution.
These days the dish can benefit from hipster twists, but it has more obsessive manifestations as I discovered when I checked out the Mac and Cheese Club of America Facebook group.
Take, for instance a recipe for ‘The KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese and Spam Hot Dish’, a bake whose ingredients list includes a Mac ‘n’ cheese pack, frozen peas, condensed cream of celery soup and sliced luncheon meat. Then there are Mac pizzas and burgers and a Mac ready meal that I wonder would be welcome in the Bible Belt – ‘Mac & Cheesus: The Dine Divine’, ready in 10 minutes.
Such a dish would surely have appalled Elizabeth Raffald, who (in a generally very practical book) proposed a second course of a lavish dinner to include ‘roast hare, transparent pudding covered with a silver web, snowballs, moonshine, rocky island and burned cream, mince pies, creerant with hot pippins, crawfish in a savoury jelly, snipes in ditto, pickled smelts, marbled veal, collared pig and potted lamprey, vegetables, stewed cardoons, pompadour cream, macaroni, stewed mushrooms and dessert’.
Not that food was the entire compass of this lady’s life. Born in Doncaster in 1733, she died, apparently of exhaustion, at the age of 48 in 1781 after 18 years in Manchester, where she bore 16 children as well as founding a domestic servants’ employment agency, launching a prototype deli/catering operation and running two pubs plus a cookery school.
Nigella Lawson’s Crab Mac and Cheese
It’s good to see Nigella still around at 62, as life-enhancing as ever in her best book in years, Cook, Eat, Repeat, from which this recipe comes.
She says: “The combination is just sumptuous, like a cross between a mac’n’cheese and a bisque. I stray further from tradition in that I use pasta shells rather than macaroni, and I don’t scatter more cheese on top and brown it in the oven. I find a freckling of Aleppo pepper more than makes up for the familiar heat-scorched finish.” In my version I used rigatoni
100g Gruyère, 15g freshly grated Parmesan, 15g plain flour, ¼ tsp ground mace, ¼ tsp smoked sweet paprika, ⅛ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or hot smoked paprika, plus more to sprinkle at the end, 250 ml full fat milk, 1tbsp tablespoon tomato puree, 30g unsalted butter, 1 fat clove of garlic, ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce, 200 grams conchiglie rigate pasta, 100g mixed white and brown crab meat.
Grate the Gruyère into a bowl and add the Parmesan. Mix the flour with the spices in a small cup. Pour the milk into a measuring jug and stir in the tomato purée. Put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta.
Find a smallish heavy-based saucepan. Over lowish heat, melt the butter, then peel and mince or grate in the garlic and stir it around in the pan quickly. Turn the heat up to medium and add the flour and spices. Whisk over the heat until it all coheres into an orange, fragrant, loose paste; this will take no longer than a minute. It soon looks like tangerine-tinted foaming honeycomb. Take off the heat and very gradually whisk in the tomatoey milk, until it’s completely smooth. Use a spatula to scrape down any sauce that’s stuck to the sides of the pan.
Put back on the heat, turn up to medium and cook, stirring, until it has thickened and lost any flouriness; this will take anything from 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce.
Take the pan off the heat and stir in the grated cheeses. Put a lid on the saucepan, or cover tightly with foil, and leave on the hob, but with the heat off, while you get on with the pasta. Add salt to the boiling water, then add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions. When the pasta is just about al dente, add the crabmeat to the smoky cheese sauce, then once you’re happy that the pasta shells are ready, lift them into the sauce, reserving some pasta-cooking liquid first, and drop the shells in.
Stir over lowish heat until the crabmeat is hot. If you want to make the sauce any more fluid, add as much of the pasta-cooking water as you need. Taste to see if you want to add salt – the crab meat you get in tubs tends to be quite salty already.
Divide between two small shallow bowls and sprinkle with Aleppo pepper or hot smoked paprika.