The ultimate autumn comfort food: really easy macaroni cheese express

Macaroni cheese is the ultimate comfort food, but I’m never in the right frame of mind to make it. This unconventional method is the answer – the pasta cooks in the milk, eliminating time and dirty pots. What’s not to love about that?

Once you’ve tried this method, you won’t look back. It’s best made with blue top or whole milk; but if you want to use trim, use 3 ½ cups of milk and omit the water. If you don’t drink cow’s milk, try this with goat milk. If you’re in Wellington, look out for Brooklyn Creamery goat milk, which comes from a farm up behind the wind turbine (I know, who knew?) It’s gorgeous milk, hyper-local and very fresh.

  • 2 ½ cups milk
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 220g dried small pasta (like elbows, macaroni or small penne)
  • A good grating of fresh nutmeg
  • 1 ½ tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 packed cups baby spinach
  • 1 ½ packed cups grated tasty cheese
  • 2 slices stale bread, crumbled or grated

Set the grill to medium-high and grease an ovenproof gratin dish (about 20 cm x 30 cm).

Put the milk, water, bay leaf, pasta and nutmeg in a large pot and set over medium heat. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes until the pasta is al dente. It will seem at the start that the sauce will never thicken, but keep stirring, I promise it will happen all of a sudden.

Remove from the heat and add the mustard, baby spinach and most of the grated cheese. Stir well to combine and tip into the prepared dish. Scatter the grated bread and the rest of the cheese over the top.

Put the dish under the grill and cook for 5-10 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. Serves 3-4.

How to make Nuts & Bolts

In these trying times, it helps to have a reassuring snack at hand. If you want something to briefly take your mind off the woes of the world, I have the snack for you: Nuts & Bolts.

For the uninitiated, Nuts & Bolts are a highly addictive snack with just-about zero nutritional benefits. For me, they’re an important link to my childhood, when my great-aunt Makiri would make them as a special cocktail hour or holiday snack. Nostalgia is a great flavour enhancer, don’t you think?

Makiri was an amazing cook and I always imagined that she’d made up the recipe herself, but recent research has proved otherwise. Nuts & Bolts appear to have originated in the US in the 1930s and 40s, after a cereal company included a recipe for them on the back of the box. This sly content marketing has been used by brands for decades, but few recipes are as out-there as the re-purposing of breakfast cereal as a legitimate snack (rather than just eating them out of the box when no one’s looking).

Makiri’s Nuts & Bolts were intensely savoury, slightly spicy and impossible to stop eating. After much consultation with my cousin Dominic and a lot of trial and error, I’ve recreated a 2022 version of her recipe below. Nutri-Grain and Burger Rings appeared in the OG version, but I’ve also added chilli peas and spicy broad beans for extra kick (I like to think Makiri would approve).

Nuts & Bolts

Warning: once you start eating these it’s VERY hard to stop. This makes about six cups – I wouldn’t make more unless you’re serving snacks to a big crowd or you have impeccable self-control. If, like me, you haven’t eaten Burger Rings for 30 years or so, you’ll notice that they don’t taste like they used to. They’re included here for texture and nostalgia, more than anything else. Nutri-Grain (the brick-like cereal that has multi-sport athletes on the box) has actually changed for the better in the last decade, nutritionally speaking. Even so, please note that eating Nuts & Bolts is unlikely to improve your performance at your next sporting event.

For the dry ingredients:

  • 2 cups Nutri-Grain
  • 2 cups Burger Rings
  • 1 cup roasted nuts (cashews, almonds, peanuts are all good here)
  • 1 x 100g packet spicy broad beans (I use the Savour brand)
  • 1 x 100g packet chili peas (I use the Savour brand), optional

For the flavourings:

  • 125g butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon tomato sauce
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Heat the oven to 125℃. Line a large, shallow-sided oven tray with baking paper.

Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine.

Put all the flavourings in a small pot set over medium heat. Stir until melted.

Pour the melted butter and flavourings into the bowl of dry ingredients, stirring well to make sure everything is well-coated. Tip the mixture out onto the prepared tray, spreading it out evenly.

Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes or so. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before serving, or wait until completely cold and then transfer to an airtight container.

Nuts & Bolts – Aunty Pat’s version

When I was searching for Makiri’s original recipe my Aunty Pat (maker of Aunty Pat’s infamous Never-Fail Pavlova) shared her version of Nuts & Bolts with me. Aunty Pat reckons her recipe is better – and my in-house taste-testers definitely enjoyed it, but I prefer the baked version because it’s closer to what I remember. Please note the nuts are missing from this image because some naughty taste-tester picked them all out.

  • 300g Nutri-Grain
  • 350g roasted, unsalted nuts
  • 1 dessertspoon curry powder
  • 1 packet Creme of Chicken Soup
  • 1 packet French Onion Soup
  • 1 cup peanut oil

Put the Nutri-Grain and nuts in a bowl and stir well. Put all the other ingredients in a small bowl and stir until smooth. Pour this evenly over the Nutri-Grain and nuts, stirring until evenly mixed. Cover loosely and set aside for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Transfer to an airtight container until ready to serve. Makes about 10 cups.

Is there a Nuts & Bolts story in your family recipe archive? I’d love to hear it!

Crunchy cheese, potato and onion bake

When all this is over, I’m going to declare a fatwa on potatoes and cheese. We’re a potato-based household at the best of times, but right now it feels like we’re practically living on them. I’d do anything for a bit of variation on the cheese front, too. Just before lockdown started I had a wedge of my favourite Whitestone Aged Windsor Blue that I ate all too quickly. And oh, to be able to eat any of the cheeses I ate in France last year…

However, in the spirit of being grateful for small mercies, even the most ordinary potatoes and cheese can make life seem a little brighter. This is a riff on my sister-in-law Jenny’s famous cheesy potatoes (I aspire to make them as well as she can). If you squint, it’s sort of a poor man’s tartiflette – I made this Thomasina Miers’ tartiflette many times in France with enormous wheels of reblochon last year. And one day, I will again.

CRUNCHY CHEESE, POTATO AND ONION BAKE

Serves 4

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 45 minutes

If you’ve got cold leftover roast or boiled potatoes, you can use them instead – just blanch the spinach or silverbeet in boiling water, then add it to the potatoes and crush. Also feel free to swap the bacon for ham (or a small amount of anchovies, or olives). Other good additions include cherry tomatoes, little florets of broccoli or cauliflower, chunks of other cheeses – whatever your lockdown cupboards or fridge offers up.

  • 5 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 large onions, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 6-8 large agria potatoes, scrubbed and cut into large chunks
  • 200g spinach or silverbeet, washed and roughly chopped
  • 150g streaky bacon, diced
  • 2 cups grated tasty cheese

Heat the oven to 200C. Put 3 Tablespoons of the olive oil and the sliced onions in a roasting dish and toss well. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes while you’re getting the potatoes ready.

While the onions are cooking, cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 15 minutes, until just about falling apart when prodded with a fork. Drop the spinach into the pot and cook for two minutes, then tip the whole thing into a colander and leave to drain.

Remove the onions from the onion and take most of them out of the dish. Layer some potatoes and spinach on top, crushing the potatoes with a fork, followed by some grated cheese and bacon. Repeat these layers, ending with cheese and bacon. Season well with lots of black pepper, drizzle over the remaining olive oil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, until everything is crunchy. Eat with lots of hot mustard and something green.

Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

You may well feel that life is too fraught at the moment to even consider making your own hot cross buns (you might feel like that all the time, in which case you have my sympathies). Even if you do like a bit of baking therapy, your plans might be stymied by a lack of yeast, or flour, or energy to do anything other than get through the day. I know the feeling. But in case you feel like making something, here’s an Easter-ish breakfast treat that uses basic ingredients, doesn’t require you to nurture a living thing and takes very little time to make.

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Chocolate pikelets with spiced honey butter

A note on substitutions for these straitened times: using butter gives these a better flavour, but using oil is fine if butter’s in short supply. Use any sugar (white, caster, brown) – but don’t pack brown sugar into the cup. Use any milk and any flour – omit the baking powder if you’ve only got self-raising, use a little less if you’re using wholemeal (and be aware the pikelets will be a bit sturdier). If you don’t have honey, use golden syrup in the butter (I had to do this for the photo – it was still delicious). 

Makes about 20 pikelets, serves 3-6 depending on greed, hunger, boredom etc

Preparation time: 10 mins

Cooking time: 10 minutes

  • 1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ – ¾ cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp cocoa
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 cup plain flour

For the spiced butter:

  • ½ cup (125g) soft butter
  • 2-3 generous Tbsp honey 
  • 1-2 tsp cinnamon

Whisk together the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and ½ cup milk. Sift over the dry ingredients and stir together until just combined (don’t over-mix or the pikelets will be tough). Add a litte more milk if the mixture is very thick.

Set a large heavy frying pan over medium heat. Grease with a little butter or oil.

Drop dessertspoons full of the mixture into the pan (hold the spoon vertically to make the pikelets round). Cook until bubbles appear and pop on the top, then gently flip over and cook for another couple of minutes. Remove to a plate lined with a teatowel or a cooling rack.

To make the spiced butter, beat the butter and honey together until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the cinnamon. 

To serve, pile the pikelets on a serving plate and accompany with the butter. Any leftover pikelets can be frozen and reheated in a toaster. Any leftover butter is great on hot cross buns or toast.

If you fancy a few more Easter cooking projects, you might like to try these Pretend Hot Cross Buns (gluten-free) or these Homemade Marshmallow Easter Eggs (also gluten-free and dairy-free).

Hope you have a happy Easter, wherever you are. Don’t go anywhere, will you?

HEMP HEART COOKIES

Is Valentine’s Day a ridiculous commercial construct, designed to part fools and their money? Yes, probably. Will I ever get over the time I was given a plastic rose for Valentine’s Day when I was 17? No, probably not (though the giver went on to disappoint me in far more damaging ways – I knew the rose was a sign!).

Whatever you might think of Valentine’s Day, the world’s going to hell in a handcart. If ever there was a time to eat heart-shaped cookies (especially these ones), it’s now. Make them to give away, make them to eat yourself. Love means never having to say ‘I’m sorry, I ate the last one’, right?

Hemp products are the current darlings of the wholefood world, especially hemp seeds (also known as hemp hearts). Their nutritional profile (they are high in protein, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc, among other things) means they have so-called superfood status. I think you’d need to eat a heck of a lot of them to benefit, but it’s all good marketing just the same. Flavour-wise, they have a sweet, nutty taste similar to pine nuts (and cost nearly as much, so you don’t need a lot!) The glossy, green oil is also incredibly delicious (and a bottle of it would make a great Valentine’s Day gift for that person you adore, hint hint)…

Hemp heart cookies

These are based on a wholemeal biscuit recipe from my mother’s notebooks. I remember her making them once or twice and we spread the tops with melted chocolate for a kind of primitive chocolate digestive biscuit. Oh, I do love chocolate digestives! There’s no chocolate on these ones, but don’t let that stop you drizzling a bit on top after baking.

  • 1/2 cup plus 1 Tbsp wholemeal flour
  • 1/3 cup self-raising flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • 3 firmly packed Tbsp brown sugar, plus 1 Tbsp more for sprinkling
  • 3 Tbsp hemp hearts, plus 1 Tbsp more for sprinkling
  • 60g butter
  • 2 1/2 – 3 Tbsp milk

Heat the oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with baking paper (or grease lightly).

Put all the dry ingredients in a food processor and whiz to mix. Add the butter and process until blended. Keep the motor running and pour in the milk until the mixture clumps. Alternatively, do this by hand: mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, rub in the butter until it looks breadcrumb-y, then mix in the milk.

If you’ve got time, wrap the dough in a piece of baking paper and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes. If not (I don’t think it makes a huge difference), roll out to about 3-4mm thick and cut into shapes.

Transfer to the lined baking tray and sprinkle over the brown sugar and hemp hearts. Bake for about 15 minutes, until light golden brown. Cool on a rack. Makes about 15 small cookies.