Macaroni cheese, or any kind of baked pasta dish, is perhaps the ideal comfort food. Cheesy, warm and filling it needs little explanation. I always find macaroni and cheese best though when it has a few extra gems of luxury dotted throughout: be it a splash of bright green garden peas or a few specks of ham or bacon. On this occasion, I’m using smoked salmon instead (and some well softened leeks which melt away into the sauce to comfort the more health-conscious part of my brain), which adds the same smokiness as bacon might. Even though fish and cheese might be quite frowned upon in macaroni’s homeland of Italy, in this instance it works well, and the more delicate texture of smoked salmon doesn’t interrupt the softness of the pasta and rich sauce. I used penne rather than proper macaroni because it’s what was in the cupboard: tube-like shapes work best, but it doesn’t really matter.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is healthy, just for having some salmon in. As has been in the newspapers of late, farmed salmon doesn’t deserve the reputation as a low fat option that was garnered by its wild counterpart. Of course, pasta smothered in cheese sauce is hardly anyone’s idea of a healthy option in the first place!
In a wide pan, heat half the butter until foaming and cook the leeks with a pinch of salt and lots of black pepper, until very soft and tender (about 15 minutes). Remove from the heat and set aside. While the leeks are softening, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta until it is slightly undercooked – they will continue to cook while in the oven. Drain, return to the empty pan and combine with the leeks. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Prepare the cheese sauce. In a small saucepan, melt the remainder of the butter, and once it begins to foam, add the flour and whisk together until the butter and flour is fully combined. Slowly add the milk and whisk until it has no lumps, and continue to stir until the sauce thickens and begins to come to the boil – if you use cold milk, it will take longer for the sauce to become free of lumps. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. Combine the cheese sauce with pasta and leeks and fold through the smoked salmon pieces.
Transfer the cheesy pasta to an ovenproof dish, or four individual dishes. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs, if using, over the top and bake for 30 minutes until golden on top. Serves 4.