I spent the majority of this long holiday weekend in the fold of my family. My cousin was visiting from California with her adorable and hilarious three-year-old, and my mementos of the weekend consist mainly of scary-good iPhone self-portraits of said toddler, two (painfully sticky) Hello Kitty stickers, and an amazing haircut (from my cousin, not her daughter). The topics discussed ranged from: the permissible number of wild cards in any given canasta; puppies; the whereabouts of the last jar of my dad’s tomato juice for Bloody Marys; favorite hair accessories; the color pink; the charms of northern California; the question of when Danny and I were going to have kids, dammit. (The answer to that last one is: chill out.) Surrounded by such grave, weighty matters (following a few days of work travel, no less) can you blame me for coming up empty-handed on this Memorial Day Monday?
Fortunately, I have what I imagine to be the writer’s equivalent of a few emergency twenties planted in various corners of my information cloud, and I’ve been sitting on them for occasions just such as this.
What’s more — and I think this is just dumb luck — this recipe seems not-totally-inappropriate for the season in which we find ourselves. (Which, in Chicago, is one of the stranger incarnations of Spring I have seen in a while: a pretty regularly roving rollercoaster of 40s to 80s and back, rainy to sunny to foggy to dangerous storms.)
This is my recipe for macaroni & cheese, which I developed back in rainy, legitimately cold October for a mac & cheese contest my friend Theo was organizing. I had been invited to participate, and, not one to back down from a challenge (or an excuse to purchase upwards of $50 worth of cheese for the explicit purpose of melting), I said I’d do it. And, in an extra-fun twist, I said I’d do it having never once made mac & cheese from scratch in my life.
WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!? Jeanelle, really. You were reciting pasta shapes shortly after learning the alphabet. You took a job at a grocery store just so you could learn all there was to know about cheese. A food geek without a serviceable mac & cheese recipe in the arsenal is like a regular geek who’s never seen Star Wars. (OH WAIT, still haven’t.)
And yet: had never done it. We grew up with spaghetti & homemade meatballs in my family, but mac & cheese from da box. So I figured this was the perfect excuse to try it out. Even if I failed, I would fail triumphantly, luxuriously; backstroking through my bechamel like Scrooge MacDuck in his vault.
Long story short: I won the contest. Admittedly, the mac was pretty. damn. good.
And so you don’t go looking: I did not take photos (except this decidedly not-delicious-looking one), and I am sorry!
I am cribbing this whole thing from an email I sent to a friend shortly after the victory — she had been looking for a good, kinda different, recipe. The suggestion to vary the cheese according to season and budget still stands. It’s no longer October (though it feels a little bit like it outside), so feel free to veer toward some crumbly clothbound Cheddars or even some goat varieties for accompanying grilled things. The “onion goo” is optional but oh-so-fabulous in this; you may recognize the recipe from a post I did in February. Not the exact same, but as the goo (okay, onion jam) is an all-purpose condiment, you can absolutely use it here.
Le Mac Meilleur (the Best Mac)
1/2 pound unsalted butter, divided
5 tablespoons flour
4 cups hot milk (make sure this is heated gently – don’t burn it!)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
Preheat oven to 350F and salt a large pot of water.
Boil the pasta, two minutes shy of the instructions on the box. Drain and return to the pot.
In a big nonstick saucepan, melt 5 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour evenly into the butter and cook for a few minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon and add the milk and the bay leaf. Cook and stir, over medium-high heat, for about 6 minutes. Remove bay leaves and whisk out any lumps. Move pan off the heat and add salt, pepper, paprika and dry mustard.
Take 1/3 of the reserved cheese and sprinkle into the bottom of a buttered 9×13 baking dish. Add half of the pasta & cheese mixture, then layer on another 1/3 of the cheese. Add the rest of the mixture, then the remainder of the cheese, and then top with the breadcrumbs.