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

October 21, 2021
14 Ratings
Photo by Emily Ziemski
  • Prep time 25 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6
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

Cooking mac and cheese in the milk that would be used to make the silk béchamel sauce is one of our favorite cooking hacks. We'd call it a shortcut, but really, it's the ultimate way to imbue the pasta with loads of cheesy, creamy flavor. For this recipe, feel free to play around with adding different kinds of seasoning (we recommend paprika for a kick) and different kinds of melty cheese for a one-of-a-kind experience.

Recipe excerpted with permission from Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi, published by Clarkson Potter © 2021. Food52

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
Middle Eastern Mac & Cheese With Za’atar Pesto From Ottolenghi Test Kitchen
  • For the mac & cheese:
  • 10 1/2 ounces (300 grams) 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 ¼-inch/3-centimeter 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) mature cheddar, grated
  • 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
  • For the za'atar pesto:
  • 1 lemon
  • 3 tablespoons za'atar
  • 1 cup (20 grams) fresh 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
  1. Put the pasta, 2 ½ cups/600 milliliters of milk, 1 ½ cups/360 milliliters of water, butter, garlic, turmeric, 1 teaspoon of salt, and a good grind of pepper into a large sauté pan over 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/100 milliliters 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 zest the lemon to get 1 ½ 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. 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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

13 Reviews

[email protected] April 17, 2023
Have made this twice and loved it each time... Am I the only only one thinking broken Cool Ranch Doritos in place of the onions and pesto, or should I stop smoking?
Sazall January 9, 2023
Super luxe. Not for everyone but sure ticks all the boxes for me.
HillJ October 29, 2022
I’m cooking pasta in milk or stock from now on. Game changer!
eljay April 20, 2022
I used all the same ingredients but made it in the more traditional way-- made a roux of flour, butter, garlic, turmeric, cumin and whisked in 2 1/2 c milk. When it thickened a bit, I stirred in the cheeses. I didn't use any cream or water in the sauce. Turned out great an a lot simpler prep.
Claudia February 1, 2022
The flavor combo is the
Next time I will use a tad less liquid, as mine never thickened enough and as a result the final dish was a bit on the soupy side. Will be making this again for sure!
Noreen F. January 9, 2022
My results weren’t so great, but I think it’s because I overcooked the pasta. The sauce, in spite of the extra half cup of milk, was gloppy and the cheese stringy. I’ll definitely try this method again but keep an eagle eye on it.
Bradley January 1, 2022
We made the pesto with parsley instead of cilantro because I have the cilantro soap gene. That said, we found this recipe way too rich - we agreed it should have been two separate meals. Also, for some reason the leftover pasta the next day distintegrated in a way that it doesn't when I make mac and cheese the normal way (cooking the pasta separately).
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!