Circa 1962. All three kids in our family are eagerly awaiting dinner: Mom’s baked chicken with macaroni and cheese. While the Ronzoni elbow macaroni boiled away in a large pot of salted water, my mom worked on the sauce with me at her side. I carefully cut logs of Velveeta “cheese” into squares. With sticky fingers I moved them from the cutting board to a bowl set out before me.
Velveeta is a “pasteurized prepared cheese product” that sits not in the refrigerated case of the supermarket, but on a shelf, any shelf. Like a cockroach, it would most likely survive a nuclear explosion.
Mom opened a can of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato Soup and the gelled contents were eased out and plopped into a saucepan. The empty can was filled halfway with whole milk, which was poured into the pot and stirred to combine. I popped a chunk of Velveeta into my mouth and my mother looked at me with a fake frown. She took the bowl of cheese and dumped it into the hot soupy sauce in which it melted almost immediately just as its name, Velveeta, was intended to connote a “velvety smooth” product.
The mixture in the saucepan was an abnormally-bright yellow-orange in color. Mom stirred in the cooked elbows. She never baked her mac and cheese; we ate it right away, piping hot, along with baked chicken slathered with Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup, mixed with a heaping tablespoon of Lipton’s onion soup mix before being baked to a rich, golden color.
This was our favorite dinner. It was served with canned peach halves dotted with butter, sprinkled with cinnamon, and baked alongside the chicken. A small, fresh salad completed the meal. The next day, if there was any leftover mac and cheese, my mother would crisp it up for me in a skillet coated with a little butter. Janet found it nauseating, but I delighted in it.
When Janet was in college and my brother was a father of young twin boys, they both continued to use Mom’s recipe for mac and cheese. I had become interested in health foods while in high school and had given up as many processed foods as I could, carefully reading jar and box labels. Mom’s mac and cheese was out of the question. In an effort to come up with a healthy and delicious alternative, I began experimenting with different cheeses and learned to make a bechamel sauce, into which the grated cheese was added to form a smooth base for the pasta.
American cheese was disregarded entirely. Sharp white cheddar won me over. At first, like Mom, I too made my pasta purely stove-top, not realizing the benefits of oven-baking the mac and cheese to give it that all-important crisp and golden top. So, my first attempts were eaten hot out of the pan and though they were tasty, I sensed something was missing. Also, in homage to the color of Mom’s dish, I often added a tablespoon of tomato paste. It did nothing for the taste and didn’t come close to replicating the garish color of the original. So that addition was ditched.
Most important was my search for a pasta shape that scored more points than the tiny, simplistic, comma-shaped elbow macaroni, which brought to mind overcooked, pale and limp store-bought macaroni salad seen in every supermarket’s deli case. I wanted something more substantial and preferably ribbed to further help the sauce cling to its surface. Coiled, corkscrew shapes like fusilli and rotini were contenders, and cavatappi, which resembles an elbow macaroni grown in size and thickness, became a favorite. Medium shells work well because the sauce collects in the shell’s cup, squirting out when you bite down, a plus. I even made an Italian version of macaroni and cheese calling for wide egg noodles. Noodles love a creamy sauce, and the mixture of fontina, mozzarella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses made a fine version. Sometimes I added strips of prosciutto di Parma (Italian dry-cured ham, sliced paper thin) or sauteed cubes of pancetta (pork belly meat that is salt-cured, not smoked, but can be substituted for bacon, as it gets crispy when cooked).
You would think it’s easy to find a truly great macaroni and cheese, but many miss the mark. There is an exemplary version in Manhattan at Le Zie Restaurant, where they incorporate woodsy, earthy truffles and even top the dish with a whole slice of that glorious fungus. But I no longer live in the city, so I have searched closer to home. My favorite, by far, discovered some years ago, is served at the Heron Restaurant in Narrowsburg, NY. It has all the right elements: a pasta shape that catches all the creamy, cheesy sauce and a crunchy topping (studded with thinly sliced scallions) which contrasts beautifully with the rich, perfectly cooked pasta.
I believe I have come close to creating a mac and cheese that could compete with the Heron’s version and I offer it here. It is sophisticated and homey at the same time. But I have to make one admission. As I write this, a part of me wishes that for just a few moments I could once again be that expectant six-year-old at my family’s table, digging into my mom’s mac and cheese: bright orange, creamy, and so very delicious to me then.
Macaroni and Cheese Supreme
I like, on occasion, to add crispy cubes of pancetta or torn shreds of prosciutto to this mac and cheese.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cook the dried pasta a minute or two less than the package directions suggest for al dente pasta. It will continue to cook in the oven.
Drain well. Meanwhile, grate all the cheeses and toss them together in a bowl. In a saucepan or Dutch oven large enough to hold the cooked pasta, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and stir continuously with a whisk or wooden spoon for about 2 minutes, until smooth. Add the half-and-half and cream and raise the heat to high. Whisk until the mixture thickens, about 2 – 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture into a lasagna or other shallow baking dish and sprinkle the crunchy topping evenly over the top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until bubbly, then run under the broiler to crisp the top, about 2 minutes. Serve hot.
Macaroni and Cheese Topping
Makes enough for one 9” x 13” casserole
Combine the crumbs and cheese in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the oil or melted butter and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle the mixture over the mac and cheese before baking.
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