While Macaroni and Cheese is universally considered to be the ultimate in comfort food and is usually associated with the fall and winter months, it is also a staple of buffet dinners at any time of the year. Since this is the season of celebrations – graduations, reunions, showers, farewell parties, and open houses – I decided to post our family recipe for this well-loved dish.
I first began to make Macaroni and Cheese from scratch after my aunts, Jessie and Tina, came to take care of our toddler and my live-in mother-in-law when I had our second child. Aunt Jessie, a truly talented cook, checked with me beforehand about meal planning, and we worked out the menus together. Macaroni and Cheese was one of the dishes we selected. It was such a hit that I asked Aunt Jessie for the recipe, and, with a few tweaks, I have been making it ever since.
Jessie and Tina were my father’s two youngest sisters. At the time that they helped us out with caregiving support, they were living together in an apartment not far from the neighborhood where they had grown up and near several other family members. Both were single at the time – Jessie was divorced and Tina was twice widowed. They had faced many challenges throughout their lives beginning with the debilitating illness of their mother, who was stricken with encephalitis lethargica shortly after the birth of her eighth child. She spiraled into total helplessness and was bedridden for nearly eighteen years before passing away a few weeks after the death of her youngest son, a tragic casualty of “friendly fire” during World War II.
Jessie had left high school in the ninth grade to devote full-time to caring for her mother and running the household. Tina was still very young when their mother became ill. She managed to finish high school, an accomplishment which was a source of pride and about which she joked from time to time. She was the comedienne in the family, having learned at an early age how to cope with adversity through humor. With red hair and big eyes, she was delighted when people compared her to Lucille Ball, whom she admired greatly. Jessie was more serious, with soulful brown eyes and soft auburn hair. She had an air of serenity about her as she gracefully went about her daily routines. Jessie’s seven siblings all loved her deeply and were forever grateful for the sacrifices she made for the family.
Aunt Jessie learned to cook out of necessity, developing quite a flair for perfecting the Italian specialities that were the mainstay of her mother’s meals and also for replicating dishes of any type that she tasted at restaurants or enjoyed in the homes of others. She could turn out memorable dinners, such as savory ciambotta (vegetable stew) and liver patties with a bay leaf artfully placed in the middle of each, using the most humble ingredients.
I make her Macaroni and Cheese frequently these days, because it is my grandson’s favorite. Whenever he is coming to dinner, he invariably requests it, and I always comply. Who could resist his entreaty? “Please, Mimi, you make the best Macaroni and Cheese in the whole world.” Thank you Aunt Jessie.
Macaroni and Three Cheeses *Serves about a dozen as part of a buffet meal.
Boil 3 cups of elbow macaroni in a large saucepan for 10 minutes and drain well.
Melt 6 tablespoons of butter over medium heat and add 6 tablespoons of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons of dry mustard, and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper stirring with a wooden spoon to make a roux. When bubbly, whisk in 6 cups of milk, bring to a boil over medium high heat, and then reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring frequently, until smooth and thick.
Add 3 cups of mixed cheeses, such as sharp Cheddar and Swiss, shredded or cubed, and stir until melted.
Layer sauce and macaroni in a lasagna dish or two smaller glass casseroles that have been coated with cooking spray or buttered, beginning and ending with the cheese sauce. Finish with a topping of breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and paprika.
Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove foil and bake a few minutes longer to allow top to brown.
After removing from the oven, let the casserole rest for a few minutes before serving.
*To serve four, reduce all ingredients by half ( 1 1/2 cups of elbow macaroni, 3 tablespoons of butter and flour, 3/4 teaspoon of salt and dry mustard, 1/8 teaspoon of pepper, 3 cups of milk and 1 1/2 cups of mixed cheeses).
Note: Aunt Jessie always topped the last layer of cheese sauce with a few slices of American cheese, torn into large pieces, before sprinkling with the toping ingredients for added creaminess. Then, of course, the dish would be Macaroni with Four Cheeses 🙂