In college, the dorm-floor specialty was Kraft macaroni and cheese (dubbed “Mac and sleaze”) cooked in a hotpot. For those of you too young to know what a hotpot is, in those pre-microwave days it was a plug-in kettle in which one could boil water. Or, in this case, pasta. My roommate added the cheese powder and butter directly to the pot, and it always had this slightly gritty texture. It’s a sad comment that ravenous college girls deemed this dish more appetizing than the dining hall offerings, but I’m afraid it’s true. I won’t mention the time I got food poisoning from eating from the steam table. No wonder we felt this was comfort food.
These days, the only topic on which my children agree is that the best macaroni and cheese is my homemade version. This classic recipe is adapted from the beloved Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. My parents’ copy, published in 1952, is held together by rubber bands and used constantly. I hope to inherit it someday.
Macaroni and Cheese
8 ounces of dry pasta shape (elbows or fusilli preferred)
10 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
a pinch or two freshly grated nutmeg
Several grinds of black pepper
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs (or fresh breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs)
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/8 teaspoon paprika
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil; add pasta and cook till al dente (not mushy). Meanwhile, in a heavy saucepan, melt the butter (do not brown) and add the flour. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk, until the butter-flour mixture is thickened. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly, until the sauce is blended. Add the cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and cook until cheese is melted and sauce is thick. By this time, your pasta should be cooked. Drain the pasta and add to the cheese sauce. Turn the cheese mixture into a 1 1/2 quart casserole. Combine the panko, Parmigiano Reggiano, and paprika and sprinkle over the top of the macaroni. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbling.
Variations: Needless to say, you can change this recipe up in numerous ways. My kids like peas and ham cubes mixed into the pasta. You can also top the casserole with sliced fresh tomatoes, but that wouldn’t fly in my house.