Middle Eastern Mac & Cheese With Za’atar Pesto from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen

October 21, 2021
4.8 Stars
Photo by Elena Heatherwick
Author Notes

This recipe is a Middle Eastern take on a mac and cheese thanks to the addition of cumin, an 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 cornstarch. Fry in hot vegetable oil in about three batches, for 4 minutes per batch, or until golden. —Food52

Test Kitchen Notes

Recipe excerpted with permission from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi, published by Clarkson Potter © 2021. —The Editors

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Middle Eastern Mac & Cheese With Za’atar Pesto from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen
  • Prep time 25 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6
  • Mac & Cheese
  • 10 1/2 ounces (300g) dried cavatappi or fusilli pasta
  • 2 1/2 cups to 3 cups (600 to 700 milliliters) whole milk
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, roughly cut into 1 1/4-inch/3cm cubes
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle
  • 5 tablespoons (75 grams) heavy cream
  • 1 1/3 cups (160 grams) coarsely grated mature cheddar
  • 6 1/3 ounces (180 grams) Greek feta, roughly crumbled
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup (45 grams) crispy onions or shallots, store-bought or homemade
  • Za'atar Pesto
  • 1 large lemon
  • 3 tablespoons za'atar
  • 1 cup (20 grams) cilantro, leaves and stems both, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1/2 cup (40 grams) pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • 6 tablespoons (90 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil
In This Recipe
  1. Put the pasta, 2½ cups/600ml of milk, 1½ cups/360ml of water, the butter, garlic, turmeric, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a good grind of pepper into a large sauté pan on medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 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 ½ cup/100ml of milk at this stage, depending on how saucy you like your mac and cheese. Turn the heat down to low and stir in the cumin, cream, and both cheeses until the cheddar is nicely melted.
  2. While the pasta is cooking, make the pesto. Finely grate the lemon to get 1½ teaspoons 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, cilantro, 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.
  3. Transfer the mac and 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.
  4. Get ahead: Make the Mac and cheese ahead of time if you like, adding a splash of water to thin out when reheating.
  5. Make it your own: Play with different cheeses and spices. Use different pasta shapes like macaroni, adjusting liquid levels as necessary.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Jordan Sugarman
    Jordan Sugarman
  • Laura Chicchi
    Laura Chicchi
  • Darian
  • LL

6 Reviews

Laura C. November 14, 2021
We loved this dish! We definitely will make again. I followed the recipe except for the onion topping. We used the za'atar pesto on pasta later in the week. I also loved the fact that everything happens in one pan - easy clean up.
Jordan S. October 27, 2021
I got a bottle of za'atar at Trader Joe's a few months ago and have been looking for something to do with it. This was perfect. I followed the recipe pretty exactly (well, I bumped the quantities up a little so I could use a full package of pasta). Everyone was impressed, including my super-picky daughter (couldn't convince her to eat the onions, though). The lemony pesto really lightens up an otherwise very heavy dish. This definitely goes in my list of "will make again" recipes.
Darian October 27, 2021
The pesto was so good! Glad I took the extra time to hunt down the za’atar. I had to throw out my onion because of a salmonella recall so I didn’t get to add the topping - next time!
LL October 26, 2021
This was really delicious. It also came together quickly despite the rather lengthy list of ingredients. And now I have new, genius way of making home made mac and cheese (cooking the pasta in the milk makes a lovely sauce and there are fewer pans to clean.) Will definitely make this again.
LL October 26, 2021
I want to add that the za'atar pesto is excellent - even better the next day.
ghainskom October 26, 2021
Different, delicious!