Sunday, December 23, 2007

Humble Pie

More nostalgia, or missing what I never had...

I was the girl who brought a box lunch to school -- never a bag, that would be wasteful -- filled with dark brown bread smeared with all-natural peanut butter and a smelly hard-boiled egg. We had couscous with raisins instead of Hamburger Helper; I was bribed every so often with "sugar cereals" like Berry Berry Kix.

We ate healthy/organic/local well before the days of a Whole Foods in every gentrified neighborhood. It was mortifying.

So I loved sleep-overs at friends' houses and babysitting for the kids down the block because they spelled rare opportunities for junk food. And Kraft Mac n' Cheese was definitely right up there in the hierarchy of nasty-but-good. By the time my sister, 11 years younger, was around, there were natural versions of classic easy-cook junk foods, like Annie's shells and cheese and Amy's frozen pizzas -- yet another reason why the young ones always have it better.

In fact, that classic American dish -- mac n' cheese -- has had a number of guises. It was surprising to me to learn that it's been around since at least 1847, when it was published in a recipe titled "To Dress Macaroni a la Sauce Blanche" in The Carolina Housewife by a Lady of Charleston. The story goes that the dish arrived in the south long before the Italian immigration to northern cities because our man in Europe, Thomas Jefferson, brought notes on Italian pasta-making and samples of Parmesan back to Virginia.

The recipe, which you can read here, is a heavy on the sauce. The pasta and cheese must have been luxuries and they would have had dairy coming out their ears. My roommate Jane, acting as my lovely sous chef, doubled the pasta and Parmesan and reduced the butter, milk, and cream by half. The result was a really fantastic classic baked macaroni and cheese -- what some people call a "macaroni pie" -- that had the levity of a souffle.

Old-fashioned Macaroni and Cheese

1/2 pound elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 pint milk
1/2 pint light cream
2 cups parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pinch of cayenne

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a large pot of salted water, boil the macaroni according to package directions until al dente. Drain and reserve.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter over low heat and whisk in the flour. Add the milk and cream and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil while continuing to whisk. (The Charleston housewife says, "This sauce ought to be stirred the whole time it is boiling, and always in the same direction.") When it's as thick as a creamy soup, remove from heat. (You may add more flour if needed). Add a cup of the Parmesan cheese to the sauce and stir to combine. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne, to taste.

3. In a greased 8" x 8" baking dish, put a layer of macaroni, then a layer of cream sauce, then a layer of grated cheese. Repeat until you have 4 to 5 layers, finishing with a layer of cheese. Bake for 10 minutes. Finish under a broiler for a lovely browned top.

1 comment:

Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

Wait ... Macaroni 'n Cheese isn't one of the main parts of the food pyramid? It was ... invented?? And here I thought that it grew on trees like spagetti. ;-)