When arriving in another country, it's never too early to get started on food. So in the taxi from the airport I had two early and important questions for the driver. Where is good to eat, and what are the national foods? I can reveal that in Barbados there are two or three dishes with that claim, but the most commonly encountered is macaroni pie.
Sounds frightful, doesn't it? I can, however, reassure you that no pastry is involved. The ingredients aren't exactly indigenous either. They don't grow wheat, and there's no dairy industry to speak of. Research shows that it was introduced by the British, then evolved. Nowadays our supermarkets will have entire aisles of every type of pasta. It's hard to remember the days when macaroni cheese was more or less our only pasta plate. And that, in essence, is what macaroni pie is about. There are variations, of course, but the islanders have made it richer and sweeter too. Some recipes will call for evaporated milk in place of the real stuff, and adding a dollop or two of mayonnaise isn't unheard of. I'm grateful to tour guide Ravi Shankar of Lickrish Food Tours (whom we met on Wednesday) for the recipe.
The choice of pasta is important. You could in theory use spaghetti, but no self respecting Bajan (Barbadian) cook would ever speak to you again. I don't know if in this country we can get long macaroni, the hollow tubes similar in length to spaghetti. You break them up into lengths of approximately 5cm, If you can't find that, use the angled "elbow" stuff. Holes for the cheese to ooze into are essential.
Traditionally they use Anchor Cheddar from New Zealand, but any sharp cheddar is fine. The recipe I've been given uses cups as a measure, a total of five here. A US cup equals 120g. I haven't made this dish and that seems quite a lot of cheese, but you will be making a rich sauce then adding a generous topping. Don't get too hung up about the butter and flour measurements. The recipe calls for you to soften the onion (some recipes add it raw before baking) in butter then make a roux. Grate the onion so you will get the flavour but not the texture.
Finally, play around with the seasoning to suit yourself. Some suggested flavours include mayonnaise, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, marjoram and turmeric in addition to what we've listed below.
225g long macaroni, broken into sections about 5cm in length; 1 small onion, grated; approx 2tbsp butter; approx 1 tbsp plain flour; 600g grated cheddar; about 350ml fresh or evaporated milk; about 60ml tomato ketchup; 1 tbsp mustard; 1/4 tsp dried thyme; s & p; other seasoning of choice (see above).
Preheat the oven to 180ºC/Mark 4. Butter a baking dish large enough to hold the mixture. Cook the pasta in well salted water until al dente and drain.
Soften the onion in the butter, then add flour to make a roux. As ever, cook the roux for a few minutes. If using evaporated milk, bring it to a boil separately to thicken till it coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add your milk to the roux gradually. Stir in the mustard and season with some s & p (remembering that the cheese is quite salty). Add about 75 - 80% of the cheese and stir in until melted.
Finish your seasoning. Add the thyme and ketchup and anything else you may be using, and check the s & P. Put the pasta in the baking dish. Pour the sauce over it and mix well. Top with the remaining cheese. Bake for 35 - 40 minutes. There should be a nice crust on top.
Believe it or not, this is often served as a side dish. I bet it's better than the original macaroni cheese which we Brits first brought. The Bajan version is credited for sparking the mac 'n' cheese craze in the States.