Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Macaroni & Cheese

Macarini and Cheese
Adapted from The Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook by Mildred Huff Coleman

Serves 4 to 6

I once had Sunday supper in Cleveland at the home of my friend Polly's mother. She had people over in the late afternoon after they had all been to the Symphony. Everyone was happy and relaxed on a warm sunny day in early summer. The women wore cool cotton dresses; the men, linen blazers. Ruth was a good cook. More than twenty years later, I still have a number of her favorite recipes in the loose-leaf book of things I cook most. 

That day the menu was plain classic chicken salad, macaroni and cheese, a huge tossed Caesar-like salad, and toasted buttered pita bread - which at the time I had never seen before. Bags of pita chips were not yet available at the supermarket. Dinner was served buffet-style, and people found chairs to perch on - or not - but no one sat at a table. All the guests had a great time, drinking lots of white wine, and eating everything in sight. The macaroni and cheese, in particular, disappeared in the blink of an eye. That was when I learned that simple - even humble - food can make a great party provided everything else is in place, especially convivial people and a warm atmosphere. Lots of quaffable wine doesn't hurt either. In the summer Portuguese vino verde is good. It is low in alcohol and just slightly, festively frizzante.

It was also the day I started the search for what we be my macaroni and cheese recipe.  

My friend Carolyn found the recipe in the spiral-bound Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook. It's the easiest macaroni and cheese recipe you will every find. It doesn't have four cheeses or a secret ingredient. You don't make a cheese sauce. It isn't even creamy. It's baked and custardy. Someone (and I promise this is true) took a bite, got an ecstatic look on her face, and said "Oh, this is fluffy," as if she had invented the word.  

I know everyone always thinks his or her recipe for macaroni and cheese is the best, and I am no exception. But mine really is the best.  

It's called macarini and cheese instead of macaroni and cheese because someone wrote that down when they were scribbling the recipe on a note pad. It seemed funny at the time, and it stuck.

Macarini & Cheese
Adapted from The Frances Virginia Lee Tea Room Cookbook

Note:  I have never had this work properly with a different shape of pasta. I like DeCecco Elbows.

5 ounces of uncooked DeCecco Elbow Macaroni (If this is measured, it's a generous cup.)
2 cups whole milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
⅛ to ¼ teaspoon salt
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes (I usually use white Cabot Extra Sharp Vermont Cheddar.)
2 tablespoons butter, for dotting on top (optional, and I don't do it)

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter a 1-½ quart casserole. I use a round (rounded on the bottom) Pyrex one.

Cook the macaroni in boiling salted water until slightly underdone. Drain, and set aside. Mix the beaten egg, milk, and salt together in a medium bowl. Add the cooked macaroni and the cubes of cheese, and stir. Pour the mixture into the casserole. Dot the top with the optional slivers of butter, if you're using it.

Bake at 350°F until firm and lightly brown, about 30 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.

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