Älplermagronen (alpine macaroni) is described by many as ‘the Swiss version of American mac and cheese.’ That is fair, given that it is cheesy macaroni, but the whole idea of mac and cheese probably originates from the alpine regions of Italy and Bavaria where pasta and spätzle have been combined with cheese since before America was invented. Given that alpine borders were (and remain) positively porous and Italy did not exist until 1861, it is not an enormous leap of logic to understand how a dish that combines a dried staple (the pasta) and local dairy (nearly everything else) ends up as a Swiss alpine classic.
For a traditional Älplermagronen, the Swiss make the bizarre addition of an apple sauce (‘Apfelmus‘). This can be made with or without lemon juice and with or without cinnamon.
Älplermagronen is simple in its preparation, and many, many variants exist. One of the principal options is to cook the onions with some bacon and add garlic. That is OK, but you will not get the same crisp as you would if you shallow fried the onions in hot oil. In many cases, people will buy in crispy onions and add them that way to avoid the faff and maintain the crisp. If we imagine making this dish on a freezing mountainside, then the frying pan method with the bacon makes sense, and it is the only way to get properly cooked garlic into the dish. We have seen vegetable stock added to the cream and the pasta and potatoes cooked together in that, but this is unusual and you risk burning the cream. Potatoes and pasta can be cooked in the water together, but may cook at different rates, so there is risk in that approach. The pasta can vary in size from macaroni up to penne, but is always a tube style.
I have seen an American chef ‘expert’ make Älplermagronen with a béchamel sauce. This makes sense from the hands of a man who comes from the land of mac and cheese (which uses a traditional French white sauce), but it is not a common way to make the Swiss dish, so we are ignoring that idea.
The recipe for Älplermagronen given here is a synthesis of two or three recipes available on the Internet, along with some observances made while ordering and eating the dish in Adelboden in the Bernese Oberland. We fry the onions in hot oil and omit the bacon to make a vegetarian dish. A squeeze of lemon is added to stop the cheese from splitting. Notes are given for bacon and garlic. Our Apfelmus is the plain variety.
- For the apple sauce:
- 3 apples, peeled, cored and diced
- 1 tbsp sugar (approximate)
- For the pasta:
- 3 onions, finely sliced
- Oil for frying
- 400g macaroni
- 3 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
- 250ml double cream
- 150g Gruyère cheese
- Squeeze of lemon
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the apple sauce:
Stew the apples with a dash of water in a covered pan until collapsed into a puree (you can blend or pass it to make it very smooth). Add sugar to taste (amount depends on your apple variety).
For the pasta:
Heat the oil until hot and shallow fry the onions until crispy. Drain and leave on a piece of kitchen paper.
Cook the pasta in salted water according to the packet instructions. Drain. At the same time, cook the potatoes in boiling water until soft. Drain.
Combine the potatoes and pasta in a pan and add the cream, cheese and lemon. Stir on a medium heat to melt the cheese and coat the pasta and potatoes. Season to taste.
Transfer the cooked Älplermagronen to a serving dish or individual plates. Grill briefly (5 mins), sprinkle over the onions and grill again.
Serve with the apple sauce in a ramekin on the side.
If you are making a version with bacon, then fry the bacon lardons and onions together in a dry pan. The bacon fat will cook the onions. If using garlic, this is the time to add it. The whole preparation can be used as the garnish.