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Volume 16, Issue 5: Processed Femina

Mac and Cheese

Nancy Wilson

An issue on cheese couldn't really be complete without some mention of that comfort food, macaroni and cheese.

Since other real cheeses have been extolled elsewhere in this issue, I find it is my duty to speak of the glories of Velveeta when the family is yearning for some real down-home macaroni and cheese for dinner. It is the staple food for young families (along with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches). And I'm not talking about the kind of mac and cheese that you buy in a box for a quarter. No, no, no. That might be fine for hungry college students, and my grandkids adore it for lunch. But here in this column I am talking about the real deal: homemade mac and cheese made with Velveeta.
My daughter found a recipe for Uptown Getdown Macaroni and Cheese that calls for about eight different kinds of (real) cheeses and costs about fifteen dollars to make. It is good enough to serve to company with a nice mellow red. But I am speaking here about the golden, gooey, stuff that comes out of the oven covered with steaming brown bubbles. Make a bowl of this and your five-year-old (or twenty-five-year old) will think you are an angel.
This kind of macaroni and cheese is good for leftovers straight out of the fridge, still in the big Dutch oven or huge Pyrex bowl, without even warming up. Tradition at my house involves the big porcelain-covered, cast-iron blue Dutch oven my parents bought in Holland. I grew up watching delectable things come out of that big Dutch oven. Now it is in my cupboard, and it is the vessel of choice for macaroni and cheese. It will hold a double batch easily.
I know that Velveeta can be used for things like cheese soup, and it does melt nicely for a grilled cheese, but I still prefer other cheeses for these uses. But when it comes to macaroni and cheese, Velveeta is the good stuff.
Depending on how or where you grew up, macaroni is served with catsup. I didn't grow up with macaroni and cheese regularly on the menu. Mom was a great cook, and I mostly remember a lot of pot roasts and mashed potatoes. But I do remember that Dad could whip up a mess of mac that could compete with the best. He is the one who taught me to put catsup on my mac and cheese, and so I grew up assuming everyone else did. I really don't know if he used Velveeta, or if it had even been invented yet in the fifties and sixties.
My husband grew up with a different macaroni and cheese tradition. In fact, after we were married I got his mom's recipe so that I could perform the mac and cheese ritual appropriately. I don't think I had thought about macaroni and cheese for years, and I had certainly never made it from scratch.
The crisp brown edge of the mac and cheese that was still stuck on the edge of the pan was much prized in his house. They did not douse it with catsup and were a bit shocked at my addition. I'm afraid our children (and grandchildren) have taken after my side of the family. You simply don't serve mac and cheese unless you have catsup on hand. It does spoil the color somewhat, but it still looks good on the plate next to some green peas. And it's helpful for teaching the children what happens when you add red to yellow. You get orange.
Years ago we had unexpected company (a family of good size) stop by. I soon realized that they weren't really stopping by, but planned on staying. I also realized I didn't have the volume of ingredients on hand to offer anything very impressive for dinner. Then it came to me: macaroni and cheese. I made a blue vat of it. Everyone was happy. The kids loved it. We passed the catsup.
The glory of macaroni and cheese is its comfort level. It is cheap and even nutritious, doesn't take long to make, and is quite filling. Babies can eat it. Old people can eat it. It has simple ingredients: milk, butter, flour, salt and pepper, cheese, and the noodles. Even the most inexperienced cook can produce a big tub of it. If you want to be rather gourmet about it, you can add a little Worcestershire or mustard powder to the cheese sauce. I once heard of someone adding raisins, but it was not well-received.
Today macaroni and cheese has made a comeback. You can find dozens of recipes on line and many of the new cookbooks include a recipe for "mac & cheese." They call it the ultimate comfort food, and it is often far more sophisticated than my old Velveeta recipe. Some call for swiss cheese or even mozzarella. Some put bread crumbs on the top. Ina Garten includes a recipe in her Family Style cookbook (a New York Times Bestseller) that uses Gruyere and extra-sharp Cheddar. (The only thing that worries me about her recipe is the half teaspoon of nutmeg.) She adds sliced tomatoes and breadcrumbs on the top to make it snazzier, but even my old Better Homes cookbook from the seventies suggests the sliced tomatoes (salted) on the top.
Though I've never served macaroni and cheese for a Sabbath dinner yet, I am not against it in principle. The point of Sabbath dinner is to celebrate the Lord's Day with family and friends with rejoicing and thanksgiving. Though a big piece of roasted meat is always welcomed to the table, I doubt any of my family would be disappointed if I brought out the big blue Dutch oven full of steaming macaroni and cheese. The Lord is Lord of all.

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