Handcrafted Midwinter Dairy Dairy Dairy Macaroni and Cheese

Bah! There was macaroni and cheese long before Kraft. This recipe will take a little more effort than the off-the-shelf Cheeto-dust method, but it's still simple and non-nutritious.

You will want:

  • A very hot surface and an oven. I think wood stoves are best, but that's probably superstition.
  • A dutch oven, or any other sort of cast-iron pot thick enough to distribute heat and safe to put in an oven (so no plastic handles). (You'll be wanting some pot-holders and a trivet when it's hot.)
  • A colander (not just to strain the macaroni, but to store some of it in for a moment — you could just use a second pot to cook it).
  • Enough elbow macaroni to fill the pot about three-quarters full when cooked.
  • A lump of cheddar cheese (I prefer mild) at least equal in volume to your fist, and a cheese-grater.
  • Enough milk (I prefer whole) to fill the pot one-fifth full — maybe a little more.
  • Pepper, salt, &c.

Heat the oven until it seems pretty hot. Self-respecting wood stoves don't have working thermometers (except lousy expansion-spring ones), but it's pretty hard to get wrong — you know, hot enough to cook the cheese but not hot enough to burn the cheese before cooking the inside.

Grate the cheese well; don't just dice it. Cook the macaroni al dente, strain it in the colander, and pour two fifths of it back into the pot. Add the milk (stirring it in a little so it gets inside the elbows) and two fifths of the cheese (perhaps stirring it in, but letting most of it rest on the surface). Cover that gummy stew with the remainder of the macaroni, and spread on the last of the cheese (no mixing this time). Sprinkle it with lots of pepper, salt, &c. Stick that on a rack in the oven, and take it out when the top cheese is a horrible, greasy, crunchy scab.

You should have at least three layers: the salty, peppery, &cy top; the extra-cheesy mildly-salty middle; and the angelically creamy bottom. When properly cooked, a hint of scalded (not burnt) milk lurks in the bottommost elbows, but most has evaporated to suffuse the whole mass with lactose magic. The middle is mostly pure noodle-matter, but imbued with the olfactory likeness of cheese and that lightness imparted only by steam. The crust is not half so subtle: it is an organic moon-face of molten cheese and hot salty pepper, a crisp-but-stringy half-living malicious vittle. All mixed up in a bucket, I suppose this savory layer-cake might somewhat recall Kraft's blaze orange floury noodle-slurry, but the resemblance might as well be coincidental. The charm of real macaroni and cheese over Kraft Dinner or ordinary noodles-with-cheddar is its heterogeneity: each part of the dish has its own flavor, texture, and temperature; it harmonizes rather than blends with itself.

My mom did most of the family's cooking. When she was out at dinnertime, Dad would make either rice or this with some Pogues or Crash Test Dummies cassettes up pretty loud. We three kids would sit around making slightly more sarcastic comments than usual, putting our feet on the table, and waging guerilla rubber band war. We'd read for a couple hours — rising only to flip the tape — before doing the dishes, and when Mom came in from the cold we'd act all innocent in the smell of hot pepper and cheese.