Archive | January, 2013

Almost perfect gluten-free mac and cheese

15 Jan

Gluten free macaroni cheese

Regular readers will remember that last year the profile of my kitchen changed forever with the diagnosis that my youngest daughter was suffering from coeliac disease. Since then we’ve embarked on a gluten-free odyssey that has seen us come to the conclusion that:

  • however well meaning, the knowledge of the UK restaurant industry about the illness is pretty patchy
  • a two year old who needs a gluten free diet will actually try to eat her own body weight in chips before she eats a carrot

Macaroni cheese was a Saturday lunchtime staple before the diagnosis. I felt I had it down to a fine art, producing a gourmet mac and cheese with the minimum effort. We liked it and the kids liked it. Considering I still suffer night terrors about what passed for macaroni cheese at school, this was pretty amazing. In fact, school macaroni was surpassed only by the ‘pastry-free cheese and carrot pie’ in its foulness.

When you need to avoid wheat, macaroni cheese is one of the first dishes to go. There’s gluten in the pasta and there’s gluten in the cheese sauce. If you like to top your dish with breadcrumbs, there’s gluten in that too. Making it gluten-free is tricky and what I had learnt so far about gluten-free alternatives suggested it wouldn’t be particularly nice either.

But I missed my mac and cheese, so I resolved to tackle a gluten-free version head on and present it to the family as a Saturday lunchtime treat.

There are obviously two components to the dish – the pasta and the sauce.

There are countless gluten-free pastas and they are generally pretty good. The cooking time is much quicker than a wheat-based pasta and they go from crunchy, straight through al dente and into soggy in a matter of seconds. Constant checking is the order of the day.

Making a cheese sauce is also not quite as simple as it would be with wheat flour. The general principle is the same, but potato or rice flours, purely because they are lacking in gluten, do not bind together to produce a creamy sauce, but instead remain runny. The answer is a setting agent – xanthum gum – but you need to ensure you don’t over do it as the gum has a tendency to produce a slightly blamangey texture.

So, the big moment came. I served up my gluten-free magnum opus to the assembled hungry hoards.

“This is gluten-free?” asked my eldest with a slight look of worry on his face. He used to be the most enthusiastic advocate of macaroni cheese in the family, so he had the most to lose.

I took his concern as a compliment. It certainly didn’t look like it was gluten-free.

Most of the family were significantly less suspicious and dived right in.  There was a satisifed silence as macaroni cheese was devoured.

There was a big problem though.

My youngest, the coeliac light of my life, took one look at what was in front of her and pronounced “don’t like pasta”. This was news to us. Pasta is one of the staples. If I was coeliac (and for all I know I may be as it’s a genetic disease) I would live off pasta. She was obviously confused by the presence of a cheese sauce, something that we had avoided giving her for the last eight months.

We protested, cajoled and prodded, but there was no changing her mind. She dined on yoghurt that afternoon.

In contrast, everyone else cleared their plates, and I returned several times over the next few hours to pick bits of pasta out of the dish until long after it went cold. I make that a success.

My coeliac daughter will come round eventually. Now I’ve discovered that you CAN make a decent gluten-free macaroni cheese I won’t be leaving it long before I make it again.

I won’t write out the whole recipe as I don’t want to insult you by suggesting you don’t know how to make a cheese sauce, but for the record I used Doves Plain Flour, Sainsburys own-brand olive spread, xanthum gum and bog standard cheddar (lots of it). In my mind a good macaroni cheese also needs onions and garlic so I fried some up with some ham and mixed it into the pasta before pouring over the cheese sauce.