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The Ottolenghi Test Kitchen’s M.E. Mac ‘n’ Cheese with Za’atar Pesto

There's mac 'n' cheese and then there's Ottolenghi mac 'n' cheese. Aromatic with cumin and za'atar, this recipe is a Middle Eastern take on everyone's favourite comfort food dish. Use rennet-free versions of the cheeses to make this recipe vegetarian.

From the book

Yotam Ottolenghi, Noor Murad


This recipe is a Middle Eastern take on a mac ‘n’ cheese thanks to the addition of cumin, a herbaceous za’atar pesto and crispy fried onions. Cooking the macaroni in the milk, as we do here, bypasses having to make a béchamel. The starches are released into the soon-to-be-cheesy sauce, making it velvety and rich without the need for the more traditional flour-butter ‘roux’.

To make the crispy onions, finely slice a couple of onions into thin rounds, and toss with 2 tablespoons of cornflour, then fry in hot vegetable oil in about three batches, for 4 minutes per batch, or until golden.

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For the mac 'n' cheese:
300g dried cavatappi or fusilli pasta
600–700ml whole milk
65g unsalted butter, cut into roughly 3cm cubes
3 garlic cloves, crushed
⅛ tsp ground turmeric
1½ tsp cumin seeds, toasted and roughly crushed with a pestle and mortar
75ml double cream
150g mature cheddar, roughly grated
180g Greek feta, roughly crumbled
salt and black pepper
45g crispy onions or shallots, store-bought or homemade (see intro), to serve
For the za'atar pesto:
1 large lemon
3 tbsp za’atar
20g fresh coriander, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
40g pine nuts, lightly toasted
90ml olive oil


Put the pasta, 600ml of milk, 350ml of water, the butter, garlic, turmeric, 1 teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper into a large sauté pan on a medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10–14 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente and the sauce has thickened from the pasta starches (it will still be quite saucy). If using cavatappi, you might need to add the extra 100ml of milk at this stage depending on how saucy you like your mac ’n’ cheese. Turn the heat down to low and stir through the cumin, cream and both cheeses until the cheddar is nicely melted.

While the pasta is cooking, make the pesto. Finely grate the lemon to give you 1 teaspoon of zest. Then use a small, sharp knife to peel and segment the lemon and roughly chop the segments. Place in a bowl with the lemon zest and set aside. Put the za’atar, coriander, garlic, pine nuts, ⅛ teaspoon of salt, a good grind of pepper and half the oil into a food processor and pulse a few times until you have a coarse paste. Add to the chopped lemon in the bowl and stir in the remaining oil.

Transfer the mac ’n’ cheese to a large serving platter with a lip or a shallow bowl, dot all over with the pesto, then top with the crispy onions.

Get ahead: Make the mac ’n’ cheese ahead of time if you like, adding a splash of water to thin out when reheating.

Make it your own:

– Play with different cheeses and spices.

– Use different pasta shapes like macaroni, adjusting liquid levels as necessary.

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From the book: Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

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