The Craft of Macaroni and Cheese

No blue box, please!

It was a full week around our house.  Ann had taken the bulk of Friday off from work so she could do some seasonal decorating in preparation for our neighborhood Holiday House Tour.

We needed an easy meal that would be quick to prepare yet thoroughly satisfying. What would be better than a big casserole of baked macaroni and cheese?

I’m not talking about that screaming yellow stuff that comes in kit form from the famous blue box.

Marketing hyperbole aside, there is no comparison between the mass-market product and homemade Mac and Cheese. And I know from personal experience.

When I was in college and had grown weary of the cafeteria food at school, I would either hit up one of the local “all you can eats” or forage for something in my dorm room. 

Somewhere along the way I had acquired an electric popcorn popper…basically a metal pot with a built in heating element. It had a lid; at least a two quart capacity and I discovered I could also boil water in it. This made it quite handy for various low-tech cooking chores. One such application was preparing the boxed variety of Mac and Cheese mixes.

I have to admit, every time I made a batch of that day-glow concoction, I felt a twinge of betrayal to Mom’s home cooking in general and her Mac and Cheese in particular. But, it was cheap and filling…the obviously selling point from Kraft (and other manufacturers) to harried housewives and budget-conscious consumers everywhere.

It wasn’t until I got my second post-graduation apartment and acquired a roommate that I was able to leave the box mix behind and return to the comforts of the made from scratch version that I had grown up with.

Now, it’s not like there’s anything tricky about Mom’s version. It’s just what my sister and I  knew as Mac and Cheese as we were growing up. It was a common meal that provided me with one of my first culinary chores: whittling the block of cheese down into 3/8″ or so cubes.  And, of course, I happilyly ate any pieces that didn’t conform to size specificiations.

My assumption was that every one’s childhood Mac and Cheese experience was the same as mine. Mom, or Grandma, or a favorite Aunt had a from-scratch recipe that was the standard version you grew up with.

The boxed version was only used by college students, lonely singles or people without access to basic cooking facilities. Nobody was raised on the “blue box.”

I don’t remember when my wife first tasted my mother’s Mac and Cheese. I do remember her being blown away.  Seems as though Ann had never had the homemade, from scratch version before.

Now, Mac and Cheese, like so many comfort foods, has seen its share of upscale revisions. We recentlhy tasted a version that incorporated lobster into the dish.

Macbar in New York City was recently featured in a story about Mac and Cheese on CBSSunday Morning. It’s a restaurant that specializes in Macaroni and Cheese, period.

There’s also S’MAC (short for Sarita’s Mac and Cheese), another restaurant that specializes in this comfort food staple.

Truth is, I haven’t been above messing with the basic recipe myself. On various occasions I have added cut up hot dogs to the mix, or chopped tomatoes. Just yesterday, I chopped up a couple of ounces of pancetta and tossed it into a bowl of leftover Mac and Cheese before reheating it in the microwave.

The dish is so basic it lends itself easily to myriad variations. Still, it’s that plain, homemade version that satisfies like none other.  Mom knows best.

Mom’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 1# elbow macaroni
  • 1# of longhorn cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 tbs butter
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook elbow macaroni in salted water until tender. Drain and add to casserole dish. Season with salt, pepper and butter. Stir in cubed cheese and milk. Bake for 30-45 minutes, covered.

For a crispy top, remove cover for last 20-25 minutes of baking.

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6 Responses to “The Craft of Macaroni and Cheese”

  1. Sandra Says:

    Great memories. I loved making m & c from scratch as well. It was part of the comfort food related to grilled cheese. I am a purist for grilled cheese, no tomatoes, no additions, just the basics. I guess I am the same way with mac and cheese. I made it often, until I realized that the one who ate most of it was me, and it was not until I discovered my clothes not fitting, that I ended my love affair with m & c. I must say I haven’t had it in a very long time, and remarkably, my clothes still don’t fit all that well.

    • Jim Carlucci Says:

      It had been awhile since we had made it ourselves…trying to “be good” and all that. I’m very happy to say, we have not gorged ourselves on it. Instead, we have savored it and limite our portions so there is still some left in the fridge.

  2. Suzan Says:

    Ah, Jim… while the kid always preferred the fluorescent orange stuff, I am myself a big fan of the real cheese version. Far from suffering detraction, this dish welcomes odds and ends; pancetta, tuna, peas, the real cheesy mac only gets better!
    mangia!

  3. Jean Says:

    Mac and cheese is probably my all time favorite food. My mother’s recipe was similar except that she used Velveeta, which melts into a smooth sauce unlike real cheese. Now, I make a combo – half Velveeta and half cheddar. I could eat it every day!

  4. Mark Stradling Says:

    I wish I had gotten my sister’s mac and cheese recipe. It was creamy yet crispy on top.

    Stouffer’s used to be somewhat (very distantly somewhat) similar, but once they switched to those stupid plastic containers instead of the aluminum ones, it became impossible to turn on the broiler at the end of the cooking for a nice char on top.

    Ah, well.

  5. Jim Carlucci Says:

    Could Mac and Cheese be the universal food stuff?

    It certainly seems to resonate with almost everyone; it lends itself to all sorts of “tarting up” with fancy cheeses and luxurious blend-ins; but it is excellent in all of its everday, humble plainness.

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