It’s hard to plan anything with family, be it birthday, bar mitzfahs or baby showers. It is especially hard with a family that is as big as mine (I have 22 aunts and uncles). My grandmother turned seventy-five last month, and she proclaimed that she wanted “fabulous” party to mark the milestone. To this blogger that meant something that rivaled Oscar night or at the very least, a girls’ night out ala Carrie Bradshaw and friends.
To my grandmother, however, that meant family, friends and good food.
The party came together effortlessly. The menu was planned. The cake was ordered. Somehow, I was in charge of preparing a dinner worthy of Beverly’s seventy-fifth. It was a terrifying feat and exhilarating challenge. And I felt a little like a cheftestant on “Top Chef.”
We kept the food simple, which meant there was very little margin of error. The classics—roast chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes—can be the hardest to master. While family trickled in from across town or across the country, I was in my element in the kitchen.
It turned out to be a party for many milestones. I was no longer Damita’s youngest girl or relegated to the kid’s table, I was one of the women I had watched my entire life, in the kitchen hugging the babies and stirring the sauce. I celebrated a quiet milestone of my own.
And there, in my grandmother’s kitchen in Indiana, I perfected my recipe for macaroni and cheese. It isn’t over-baked or dry. It is luscious, creamy, simple. Most importantly, worthy of Beverly’s birthday.
4 tablespoons butter plus 1 to 2 tablespoons for pasta
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups of milk, warmed
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup grated sharp or extra sharp cheddar plus more for topping
1 cup grated mild cheddar plus more for topping
1 cup grated parmesan or Italian blend cheese plus more for topping
1 lb box of elbow macaroni, cooked al dente
Pre-heat over to 375 degrees.
Fill a large pot with water over high heat. When water boils, salt generously, and cook pasta according to directions, but leave it a bit more al dente.
Melt butter in another large pot over medium heat. Add flour and whisk to combine to make a roux. Let cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Slowly whisk in milk warmed in the microwave until it is combined and smooth. Season again with salt, pepper and a conservative pinch of cayenne. You want the spice to add bite and not heat, so start with an 1/8th a teaspoon and add needed.
Let mixture cook, whisking often, until it boils. It should be thick and creamy. Remove from heat. Add 1 cup of all three cheeses. Whisk to combine. The heat from the sauce will melt the cheese. Season to taste. Add more cheese if needed.
When pasta is done, drain and pour into a buttered 13 by 9 inch pan or large casserole dish. Season with salt and pepper. Dot with butter, add any leftover cheese if you wish. Stir. Add cheese sauce to pasta. It is better to have more cheese sauce, because the pasta will absorb some of the sauce. Stir until sauce is incorporated.
Top with an extra 1/3 cup of the three cheeses. Season with pepper.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until cheese is melted.
Chef’s Note: This recipe can be made with whatever cheese you have on hand. I generally use a sharp block cheese, a mild cheese and another to balance out the flavors. It's great fun finding the balance of flavors you love. Don’t believe those celebrity chefs. You do not need to buy expensive cheeses for a good macaroni and cheese.