Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Macaroni & Cheese

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

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. It was a warm sunny day in early summer. The women wore cool cotton dresses; the men, linen blazers. Ruth was a good cook. Now, almost forty 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 triangles of toasted buttered pita bread, which I had never seen before as bags of pita chips were not yet available at the market. 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 chilled white wine and eating everything in sight. The macaroni and cheese, in particular, disappeared in the blink of an eye. It was then I realized that simple - even humble - food can make a great party. Lots of quaffable wine doesn't hurt either. In the summer, Portuguese vinho verde is good. It is low in alcohol and just slightly, festively frizzante.

My friend Carolyn found this recipe in the spiral-bound Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook. 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. Around here we call it macarini 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.

I have never had this work properly using anything other than elbow macaroni; I use DeCecco since I can find it, but my favorite pastas are Pasta Setaro and Faella, and they don't make the elbow shape. Pasta Setaro does make a shape called Nodi Marini, named after the sailor's knot it resembles, and it does hold sauce well so I will try that soon.

There is a similar recipe on NYTCooking, but it has more cheese in the casserole and on top. I haven't tried it because I like this dish so much, but it is worth reading about.

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

4 ounces of uncooked 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
A little butter to coat the casserole. You can dot the top with 2 tablespoons of butter, but I don't.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Butter a 1½ quart casserole. The one I use is Pyrex, rounded on the bottom.

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 buttered 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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