Macaroni and cheese

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Macaroni and cheese, the kind made with actual cheese and not orange powder from a box, makes me think of one thing: the time right after my son was born. A dear friend made me a double batch (one for eating, one for freezing) of some kick-ass, creamy, luscious, rich macaroni and cheese. I was just home from the hospital, trying to nurse this tiny bundle of screams and coos, and – despite what books and doctors had promised – he was awake all day except for 20-minute dozes he would take after a feeding if I was lucky. Instead of sleeping 20 out of 24 hours, he used that time to eat. Everyone said I needed to nurse him on-demand, so I did. His demand, however, was insatiable. I was tired and hungry and so so so so very thirsty all of the time. It seemed like there would never be enough sleep or food in the world to fix my state.

That mac and cheese sure helped, though. I ate it for every meal one day – the breakfast included three scrambled eggs on the side which I maintain is the best nursing mother breakfast possible. Fortifying to exhausted body and weary soul.

In one sense I can still feel everything from that time – the magic of the new born, the feeling of a cascade of spit-up running down my chest, the pit of hunger that gnawed on me day and night as the life was literally sucked out of me, the ability to fall fully asleep while sitting up if given just 10 seconds of quiet and stillness – and in another sense it’s all a blur. But this I know: for better or for worse that time ended, or at least it morphed into other times. And those times quickly blur into one another in my memory and mainly what I see is the six year old beside me now. The six year old who leaves this on my desk:

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Here is how the note came about:

“Mama, the chicken at Good Frickin’ Chicken is good, but the macaroni and cheese is also really good.”

“Mmmm hmmm,” I nodded as I drove to school.

“Mama, don’t you think their macaroni and cheese is really good?”

“Uh, it’s okay, I guess. It’s not my favorite.”

“What IS your favorite then?”

“Well, I suppose the kind I make.”

Silence. Stunned silence as Terry Gross murmurs over the airwaves.

“Mama, you can MAKE mac and cheese?!?!?!”

I like this about six a lot. Ernest knows I cook as part of my job. He knows I’m a good cook (mostly from people constantly telling him and trying to make him talk about how lucky he is, but to him it is just food and he wishes there was more fried chicken gracing the table, thank you very much). Yet he hasn’t quite figured out that if it is food, I can make it. So each new item is like a gift offered down from the heavens. As with crêpes, as with baguettes.

So I said I’d make mac and cheese for dinner and then forgot to go buy cheese, and the next morning the above was waiting for me when I returned from dropping him at school – a process that involved several verbal reminders to buy cheese. Cheese was bought, grated, and baked, all were happy:

Just Plain Delicious Macaroni and Cheese

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This makes a decidedly Spartan version of macaroni and cheese – that is, the pasta-to-sauce ratio is a tad sparse. For a richer, saucier version, simply reduce the amount of macaroni to half a pound.

1 pound elbow macaroni or other small tube-shaped pasta

5 cups milk (sometimes I use a cup of white wine for a grown-up flair, adding that first to the butter-flour mixture, then adding four cups of milk)

1/2 cup cream (or increase milk to 5 1/2 cups)

7 Tablespoons butter

About 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (about 6 slices of white sandwich bread or similar)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon dijon mustard (optional)

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

6 cups shredded cheese (about 20 ounces total) – I like to use about half aged gouda, and half regular gouda but there are infinite possibilities

Preheat oven to 375. Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until just tender to the bite – drain it and set it aside.

If you’re feeling precise, gently warm milk and cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat or, I imagine, for about a minute in the microwave. If you add it cold to the roux the whole thing will seize up and you’ll have to really whisk a lot of lumps out of it – work now or work later, it’s your choice.

In a large pot over medium high heat, melt the butter. While butter melts put bread crumbs in a medium bowl. Pour out 2 tablespoons of the butter and toss with the bread crumbs. Set aside. Return remaining butter to the heat. When it stops foaming, whisk in the flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until you get a slight cooked pie crust smell, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly. Cook, whisking, until sauce thickens slightly. Stir in salt, mustard if you like, nutmeg, pepper, and cayenne.

Add cheese, one handful at a time, whisking or stirring between additions so you have a smooth sauce before adding more cheese. When all the cheese is melted into the sauce, remove from the heat. Add more salt, nutmeg, pepper, or cayenne to taste. Add pasta and toss to thoroughly coat the noodles with the sauce. Pour macaroni into a 9-by-13 baking pan. Cover with bread crumbs and bake until bubbling and golden on top, about 20 minutes.