Food Friday: Macaroni & Cheese

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(My apologies for this recipe from the Spy’s Way Back Machine. I got caught in Connecticut during the latest blizzard, and couldn’t make it back to the ranch in a timely fashion. New stuff next week! Honest.)

Melted cheese is so good on many things – pizza, cheeseburgers, Fettucine Alfredo, grilled cheese sandwiches. They are probably all heart stoppers that gladden our future cardiologists – but they are necessary comforts to get through the wintertime blues. Remember being a little kid, with melting snow in your boots, and frozen toes trapped in the vise of wet socks? You would stand in the back hall, tearing off your wet snowsuit, starving after a morning of sledding down the hill, dodging trees and rocks. Don’t you remember what a cooking whiz your mother seemed when she would boil up a tin of un-ironic Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and then flip a grilled cheese sandwich with skill and aplomb? If you were lucky, there was a handful of Fritos on the plate, too.

We take comfort in many simple pleasures: food, routines, worn out blue jeans, a patch of butterscotch sunshine on the dining room floor early in the morning for the still-sleepy cat. When our children were little we established some routines that became informal traditions. Friday nights we rolled out and baked pizza together. Mondays we ate Mac & Cheese while discussing the challenges of the upcoming school week. Gradually those little palettes grew more sophisticated, and they eschewed the simple pleasures for something more complex – like Fettucine Alfredo. I like a good plate of fettucine, when I am not overly concerned with the carbs or the oodles of butter. Mac & cheese is earthier, more redolent of simpler times. Fettucine is just snooty, continental mac & cheese.

When I was a budget-minded college student there were times that we could not overcome our inertia to traipse the 500 yards or so to the dining hall, so we would rustle up our own dinner. That was when Shirl Ann introduced me to the joys of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, in a box, with dry, orange-y powder that miraculously turned the slimy little macaronis into bright, man-made neon objets. Totally deelish. (You must keep in mind that we were kitchen neophytes, who thought we were gourmands because we really threw spaghetti at the wall, to see if it stuck, as a test of doneness. We were just a tad naïve, and our mothers would despair had they but known.) One night Shirl came up with a superbly worldly innovation – adding garlic powder to the macaroni mixture to vary the plastic-y “cheesy” taste. She shook that jar of dehydrated garlic powder over the cooked macaroni with sangfroid. She was an imperturbable kitchen marvel.

I went up a couple of price points for our children – we had Velveeta Macaroni & Cheese on Monday nights. Sometimes we had the shell variety, and other times the elbows. Eventually we learned to resist the siren song of Velveeta and devised our own homemade mac & cheese recipe. It was quite a step up from those nights in college. And this is a crowd pleaser, especially if you have to entertain some of the Tall One’s taller friends.

3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups uncooked pasta (penne, elbow, ziti, even shells if you want to wallow in nostalgia)
3 cups scalded milk
2 cups grated cheese (Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Munster– grate your own – don’t buy bags of dried out cheese!!!)
1 cup grated Gruyère
½ teaspoon chicken bouillon
Pinch of salt
Pinch of cayenne

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter. Cook, stir constantly for about 2 minutes. In a large saucepan, cook the roux for about two minutes, add scalded milk and chicken bouillon, stir constantly bringing it to a boil – just. Add grated cheese and chicken bouillon. Lower the heat and cook until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy. Set aside. Boil the pasta in salted water, stirring occasionally, until done. Drain the pasta, and pour it into the saucepan with the cheese mixture. Let stand for about 5 minutes, stirring every once in a while. The cheese mixture will thicken as it blends with the pasta. We like to serve it with a little cloud of fresh shaved Parmesan cheese on top. And some black pepper, too. You can make this ahead of time, but where is the fun in that? It is better to grate the cheese together and talk about Algebra.

The Dinner Party Download is a delightful podcast. You will be so much more charming and informative if you listen to it every week. Trust me. http://www.dinnerpartydownload.org/food-names/ Hear what they have to say about Fettucine Alfredo and how it got it’s name.

This sounds yummy, but I have always been a little leery of the bread crumb aspect. I think it must be a childhood thing…
http://www.theculinaryenthusiast.net/2011/02/macaroni-and-cheese.html

“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”
-Julia Child

About Jean Sanders

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