The Annotated Mac and Cheese

I am so delighted that Jonathan is blogging for us this week, both because he’s a great advertisement for the Grad Network potlucks and because I am a huge sucker for annotated family recipes.  Before we get to his post, though, two points of advertising: 1) LimmudPhilly is next weekend, and if you live here, you should be there.  It’s an amazing volunteer-run event that’s an intersection of lots of parts of the Jewish community all centered around learning, and I’m teaching a class on Sunday that has a lot to do with the conversation at dinner that Jonathan references below. And 2) Please write for this blog!  You can write whatever you want about Shabbat, and you can sign up here.  

I am a much better writer than I am a cook, I admit. That may be because
writing is part of what I do for a living, and cooking is not.

But when I started coming to Grad Network potlucks, I felt that I shouldn’t
arrive empty-handed. Since I also didn’t want to screw up whatever I would
bring, I decided to go for the simplest recipe I have: my maternal
grandmother’s macaroni and cheese.

In addition to being easy to make, it’s easy to carry on a SEPTA bus when
crossing town. This makes it an even better dish to bring to someone else’s
home.

Molly hosted this month’s potluck, as she has done many times in the past.
Unfortunately this one only attracted a half-dozen or so people, but we had
a great time anyway. Whatever we lacked in food, we made up for with a long
after-dinner conversation about all kinds of Jewish topics. [Miriam’s note: As nice it is when 20+ people show up to a Grad Network potluck, there’s something also extraordinarily nice about being able to have one conversation that involves everyone.  And while we didn’t have a huge variety of food, there was definitely enough quantity!]

While we were eating, I told Miriam that the macaroni and cheese recipe had
a story behind it, and that I would tell that story in this blog post. So
here goes.

As I headed to the supermarket down the street from me to pick up a few
ingredients Friday afternoon, I realized that this was the first time I was
making my grandmother’s recipe since she passed away in late February.

She lived just a few miles away from my parents’ house in Washington, D.C. I
am lucky to be able to say that all of my grandparents live or lived in the
Washington area. So I got to spend a lot of time with them growing up. My
paternal grandmother is still going strong at 97, which is a wonderful
thing.

A lot of the memories I have of time spent with my grandparents involve
food. There were birthdays and other holiday celebrations, of course, but
also plenty of low-key family dinners together.

I doubt I’ll ever be as good a cook as my grandmother was. I’m sure I’ll
never come close to matching her baking skills. Trust me when I say that her
oatmeal cookies are the best dessert that anyone in my family has ever
eaten.

But at least I’m able to carry her memory in this recipe. As simple as it
is, that’s more than enough for me.

Natalie Gossels’ macaroni and cheese (annotated edition)
To start, let me admit that the portion sizes are purposely a bit vague. The
recipe is hard to screw up if you follow it, even for someone of my limited
cooking skills. But you can also easily adapt it in whatever way seems right
for you. I’ve used different kinds of pastas and cheeses over the years, and
this is the version that I like best.

By the way, most of the numbers involved come from the recipe booklet that
my mother gave me when I moved to Philadelphia full-time in 2006. So this
recipe covers many generations of my family.

Ingredients

– Half a box of elbow macaroni
(That’s what it says on the recipe card. There’s a picture below to prove
it. Don’t buy a huge box, obviously. The right size box is about 16 ounces.
Also, I use whole wheat macaroni to make it a little bit healthier.)

– One eight-ounce bag of shredded cheddar cheese, or the equivalent amount
of hand-shredded cheese
(The recipe card calls for four to five ounces of cheese. I almost always
end up using the entire bag. Oh well.)

– One cup of milk
(The recipe card just says “milk” without specifying a quantity. You’ll see
why in the instructions. I’ve never officially measured it, but judging from
how much milk I pour out of the jug, this is my best guess. It doesn’t
matter what kind of milk you use; I use 1% because it’s what I usually have
at home.)

Cooking instructions

1. Boil the pasta.
2. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.
3. Grease a 1 ½ or two-quart casserole dish. I use a circular dish that is
about 9.5 inches in diameter and about an inch deep.
4. Drain the pasta.
5. Put a layer of pasta n the casserole dish that covers the entire surface,
but isn’t too thick.
6. Sprinkle a layer of cheese on top.
7. Put a second layer of pasta on top of the cheese.
8. Put a second layer of cheese on top of that pasta.
9. Pour milk into the dish so that it goes about 2/3 of the way up the
sides.*
10. Put the dish in the oven for an hour.

* – Now you know why the recipe is vague about the specific amount of milk
involved. You might need a little more than a cup, or you might need a
little less. From my experience, it’s better to not put too much milk in,
because it won’t fully set around the pasta if you do.

Once the hour is up, take the dish out of the oven and let it sit for 10
minutes. You can serve it hot or cold… or lukewarm at a potluck dinner
with lots of friends. It’s easy to slice into pieces, and it keeps for quite
a while if you refrigerate it.

The best compliment I’ve ever received on this recipe is that when I bring
it to Grad Network potlucks, everybody eats some. If you’re one of those
people, thanks! And thanks to Miriam for letting me write here, and for
inviting me into the Grad Network community.

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