After a month of green smoothies, protein shakes, and fruit and yogurt smoothies, my spirit cried out for a meal. I wanted eggs and toast for breakfast, and mac and cheese for dinner. I finally realized there is a reason why we have breakfast, lunch, and dinner…we’re supposed to eat three times a day. I’m enjoying the re-set, back to eating food after a scary month of dental procedures that reminded me of the joys of eating, and chewing food. If I am brutally honest, I was also using my dental procedures as a way to see if I could lose a few pounds. Multitasking is my specialty. My autobiography, to paraphrase Judy Blume, should be titled, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Geneva, and I Need To Lose At Least Fifteen Pounds.” I have been blessed with many things, but a fast metabolism is not one. But, since I need to live long enough to outlive and outperform my enemies, eating well is a must.
My love for macaroni and cheese began with the little individual portions served from steam trays at cafeterias. Yep, growing up in the Midwest and South, cafeterias were the perfect place to have lunch or dinner on a budget. No tipping, lots of choices, and generally everyone could get at least an approximation of what they wanted. I always got macaroni and cheese, glorious in its elbow-macaroni cheesy goodness. Sometimes the top was crusty with breadcrumb topping, sometimes cheesy, sometimes grainy and sometimes smooth. The little bowl was mine and mine alone, but there were no leftovers. Where to get more mac?
My first forays into macaroni and cheese cookery began with the ubiquitous Kraft mac and cheese in the blue box. The orange powder was more like a science experiment than dinner. When I began coking in earnest, mac and cheese was one of the first dishes I attempted. The building block of homemade mac is a white sauce. Thus, I became white sauce’s bitch, pathetically attempting mastery of this devilish process called roux. Lumpy sauces, burnt sauces, and thin not-sauces, thick sauces like glue. I did them all. Finally, something clicked after my numerous mistakes (including the time my grandmother seamlessly demonstrated how to make a white sauce and laughed at my disaster on the stove). Like everything in life, it’s trial and error. And errors are how we learn. The key for white sauce is threefold: 1)stir the roux for two minutes to avoid a raw undercooked taste. Equal parts butter and flour. 3) add your liquid in gradually, stirring to prevent lumps 3) You can always make a sauce thinner, but you can’t make it thicker.
Next was the cheese. American- Yuck. Velveeta. Yuck. Cheddar, yes, but it usually wasn’t sharp enough, and it was too yellow. Mozzarella: stringy. Colby: weird. Italian Cheeses: no. not for this. Blue Cheese? God, no. Believe me, I’ve tried them all. I finally came across a perfect three-cheese combo last year: Aged White Cheddar, Muenster, and Monterey Jack. Now for the pasta. Elbow macaroni is best. Don’t get weird on me with other shapes. I’ve done it, and rigatoni or farfalle and cheese sauce don’t work together. Get a good Italian pasta and cook it firm, not soft. Toppings? A must. I’m a fan of the crunchy film on mac and cheese.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 box elbow macaroni, cooked
1/4 cup flour
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups milk
salt and pepper
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Lawry’s garlic salt (thank you for this tip, Patti LaBelle!)
cayenne pepper (a smidge)
Melt butter over medium heat. Blend in flour with a whisk, cooking for 1-2 minutes to make a roux. Add about 3/4 c of milk slowly, stirring all the while. Wait ’til this becomes lump-free with your constant whisk work, and add remaining milk and seasonings. Stir over medium heat until thickens. You’ll get bored, but that’s normal. Your sauce should be medium: not thick and not thin. The cheese will transform its texture and firm it up, so err on a looser sauce initially.
Add cheese: 2 parts grated white cheddar, 1 part grated muenster and monterey jack. Something like 2-3 cups depending on how cheesy you like your mac. Reserve a little for your topping. Add more milk if it seems too thick. Taste for seasoning. Blandness is a no-no. Envelop macaroni and cheese sauce together. Stir. Pour into a buttered casserole dish and top with buttered browned breadcrumbs and cheese. (For the breadcrumbs, toast crumbs in a little skillet with a dab of butter. Stir until you are bored and they get toasty and yummy). Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes or until bubbling and topping is golden brown. And oh yes, enjoy. We enjoyed it so much we forgot to take a picture, but I’ll work on that shortly.
Sometimes dreams can come true. Mac and cheese, on demand, from your own oven. And I’ll take comfort in Michael Pollan’s words, that if you cook your own food from scratch, you can enjoy the pleasures of eating it without a smidge of guilt, and, in fact, with gratitude and thankfulness. Eating, and nourishment, of body and soul is a gift.