By Terry Harris
Few comfort foods are more revered than Macaroni and Cheese – or “Mac and Cheese” as it is often affectionately called. Almost sounds like poetry, doesn’t it?
It’s too bad that most kids now are raised on the boxed kind – aka “plastic mac and cheese” - that is so popular now, because the difference in the depth of flavor is unbelievable.
Anyway, that is not what I grew up with – and loved, so today I am going to share my own recipe for Old Fashioned, Baked Macaroni and Cheese.
I always loved this Old-Fashioned, Pre- “instant-everything” kind with big chunks of melted cheese inside. Just thinking about all that lovey cheesy goodness practically sets me drooling to even think of it.
Believe-it-or-not, it is not at all difficult to make. And I promise the improvement in the taste is like the difference between fresh, just-picked, sweet corn and the canned, store-brand corn that Daddy used to call “field corn.” This recipe is pretty much how I remember Mama’s, but apparently over the years I have developed mine into something a bit different, as she says it is not how she did it at all! Funny how childhood memories can do that. But I digress.
One things Mama says she never did is to add eggs, which I always do to make it set up. And I’m pretty sure she doesn’t add the dry mustard or cracked black pepper or bread on top… hmmm… I guess it really isn’t exactly like Mama’s. But the big, melty chunks of cheddar cheese are reminiscent of the centers of her wonderful homemade cheese biscuits, and those I do remember.
This is a pretty forgiving recipe, and as long as you use the basic ingredients – elbow macaroni, cheddar, eggs, milk you can adjust it to your taste – more or less cheese, different toppings, add or omit spices. Honestly, I’ve generally thrown things together until it looked like I wanted it to. But I hate when someone gives me a recipe like that, so I measured things out so I could share this recipe with you.
As I have played with this recipe over the years there are a few things I have learned that, I think, are genuine improvements.
First, liberally spray your baking dish before making this, or you can end up with a stubborn-to-clean mess. Also, do not overcook the noodles before the baking process. Otherwise, by the time the baking is done, your elbows are likely to resemble very mushy straws. The cheese chunks I usually make about ½ inch square, and I recommend using a lot of them. Also, be prepared to add a bit more milk if needed, depending on the size of your eggs, because if all of the noodles are not covered before baking, any bits sticking out of the top can end up dry and hard.
You can omit the dry mustard – it just adds the slightest bit of interest – but it really is better with the coarse-ground black pepper. After experimenting with everything from potato chips to panko crumbs, I’ve found that the topping I like best is a slice or two of bread crumbled between my hands over the noodles and cheese chunks. Then I carefully pour the milk and egg mixture over all, moistening the bread as it soaks down into the rest, so that it all bakes to a nice, golden, bit of crunch without burning.
Will little kids who are accustomed to the “plastic” kind that comes in a box like it? Everyone I have served it to loves it, and I have shared this with a lot of friends! But with kids I sometimes have chosen to come up with a different, funny name – and even let them help me “name it” – to avoid comparisons to what they’re accustomed to.
This is such a hearty dish that I generally eat it as an entrée, which makes it great for vegetarians. But you could cut in some ham chunks or Canadian (NOT American) Bacon for meat-lovers and still have a one-dish meal. And, of course, it is a great side dish with anything.
And that’s pretty much it! It’s quick, simple, delicious, and so comforting on any challenging day. By the way, it even freezes well. In fact, I like to make a double-batch, divide it into several smaller pans, and freeze all but the one I’m about to eat, so I’ll have some on hand in case of “emergencies.” PS: “I want something hot and homemade, but I don’t feel like cooking” constitutes a bona fide emergency in my book. Enjoy!
Queenie’s Old Fashioned Baked Macaroni and Cheese
1 Cup uncooked elbow macaroni
1 Cup (or more) ½ inch cubes Sharp Cheddar
1 ½ Cups Milk (more or less)
½ teaspoon Fresh Ground Black Pepper
¼ teaspoon dry mustard (optional)
1 slice whole wheat or white bread, torn into small pieces
½ Cup shredded cheddar (optional)
Spray 8” x 8” baking dish with cooking spray and set aside. Boil noodles in salted water until almost al dente. Drain. Mix with cheese cubes, place in prepared dish, and sprinkle bread pieces over top. Stir together eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and optional dry mustard, adding more milk if needed to make two cups. Pour mixture over cheese and noodles slowly, trying to moisten all the bread as you go. Sprinkle optional additional cheese over top. Bake in 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or until set, and a light, golden brown.
Notes: I use extra sharp cheese, but for kids, you might want to use medium. May substitute potato chips or crackers or coarse breadcrumbs for topping or skip it altogether, but this is my favorite.