Every time I open the cupboard I feel the power radiating from the ocean-blue box. I can spot one a mile away and will go the distance to get my hands on that cheesy goodness. My first memory of macaroni and cheese was while backpacking with my family in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. I was no older than five; it was hailing, I was carrying a pack about my size (or my dad was); and my stomach was screaming at me. That simple box of Max & cheese was perfection. It seemed to soothe our souls: it has soothed mine ever since.
Through high school and college I honed my skills with these two unadorned ingredients, as well as, of course, the help of Kraft. I stirred in everything from anchovies to lemon zest saving leftovers to eat cold, with a side of ranch, the next day.
It's funny how such a simple conglomeration can be, well, complex. Really, can preparation by another ever be as good as one's own? I think not. Each step is deceptively intricate and particular. Minor modifications yield a significantly different end product. Starting with the boiling of the water.
When out to eat I like to experiment with different renditions: Bar Louie's in Evanston has a three cheese macaroni with the choice of chicken or fish. I choose the chicken and add lots of pepper and chili flakes. The three-cheese sauce is folded into the macaroni and is a little soupy which is excellent for the flavors to expand. Jimmy's in Aspen has a baked Mac & cheese with a breadcrumb topping. Extra ingredients include jalapenos, red peppers and sometimes pancetta! Mesa Pizza in Iowa City has an excellent Mac & cheese pizza. This is a great way to try something new, see them make it in front of your eyes, and add absolutely anything on top!
The only time I have ever passed up a box of the stuff was while living abroad a few years ago. The 4th of July was approaching. I was the only American on the island and had no fireworks! To honor Uncle Sam, I traded my two last boxes for some bottle rockets. Now that, my friends, is what you call Patriotism. Very particular pangs of hunger immediately ensued. I took the opportunity to expand my repertoire. The Vegetarian Epicure has a nice recipeâ€¦Nutmeg makes for a nice aftertaste.
Macaroni & Cheese
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for casserole
6 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into ¼ to ½ inch pieces
5 ½ cups milk
½ cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus more for water
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 ½ cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar cheese
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere of 1 ¼ cups (about 5 ounces) grated Pecorino Romano Cheese
1 pound elbow macaroni
1.Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place the bread in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour the melted butter into the bowl with the bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside.
2.Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.
3.While whisking, slowly pour in the hot milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, 8 to 12 minutes.
4.Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere (or 1 cup Pecorino Romano); set the cheese sauce aside.
5.Cover a large pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. Cook the macaroni until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir the macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.
6.Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup Gruyere (or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano), and the breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Transfer the dish to a wire rack for 5 minutes; serve.
Still, for me, the box trumps all and forever will. It is time-sensitive, consistent, recession-friendly, comforting and almost always a crowd pleaser. Put it in the microwave, make it on top of the stove or just take it out of the fridge and eat it cold. My grandma used to eat it cold with maple syrup (which I have yet to try!).
Some claim that Thomas Jefferson created the buzz about macaroni & cheese when he served it for a White House dinner. I like to think that it powered his penning of the Declaration of Independence and that I am feeding my brain with 'power food' that will one day serve me as well as it did him.