In the book she published last year (Cook, Eat, Repeat) Nigella rails against “the insidious encroachment of the American appellation of mac ‘n’ cheese over here”, but then admits defeat and offers this take on an opulent, defiantly American pasta dish. We’ve eaten it twice, most memorably for lunch on Christmas Eve 2020, the plague year when Christmas was cancelled and we had to massage the rules in order to gather à six. Rich and comforting, it is elevated nursery food that should, in my opinion, be eaten in winter, en famille, with a green salad to offset the decadence.
Serves 4 generously
200g Gruyère, grated
2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbsp plain flour
½ tsp ground mace
½ tsp smoked paprika
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper, or hot smoked paprika, plus more to sprinkle at the end
500ml full fat milk
2 tbsp tomato purée
60g unsalted butter
400g conchiglie rigate pasta
200g mixed white and brown crabmeat (50/50)
Combine the grated cheeses in a bowl. Mix the flour with the spices in a small cup. Pour the milk into a measuring jug and stir in the two tablespoons of tomato purée. Put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta.
In a heavy-based saucepan that will be large enough to hold all the pasta + sauce later,, melt the butter over a lowish heat, 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. Take off the heat and very gradually whisk in the tomatoey milk, until it’s completely smooth.
Put back on the heat, turn up to medium and cook, stirring, until it has thickened and lost any taste of flouriness; this will take up 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 in the pasta pan, then add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, though start checking it a couple of minutes earlier.
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, drain them, 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.
Serve sprinkled with Aleppo pepper or hot smoked paprika.