The past few weeks have presented far more of those occasions when you feel like you should bring over a hot dish than is statistically right. 2009 has started out unnaturally, and unfairly, skewed toward illness and death, and I hope it has gotten it out of its system and that this is not a trend.
So I’ve been making food for friends and neighbors, of the covered dish variety, the kind that on social occasions goes to pot lucks and church suppers (if I were the sort to go to church), but on sadder ones is designed to allow the recipient to take it out of the refrigerator, heat it in the oven, and have a complete meal without giving it a thought. Such food should be comforting and sustaining. It should be rich and flavorful, to compensate for the inevitability, on such occasions, that the senses of those eating will be as numb as the rest of them. Perhaps they will taste it, and know they are alive.
Today I am making macaroni and cheese for a neighbor whose husband is a bedridden invalid on oxygen and who is herself having surgery that will incapacitate her for many weeks. She has a school-age child, and though her mother is coming, taking care of three people, one of whom has to be shuttled back and forth to school, is a lot. The least I can do is provide supper.
The Family Macaroni and Cheese
This is the macaroni and cheese that I grew up on, exactly the way my grandmother made it. It will cure what ails you. Serves 6.
6 T unsalted butter
6 T flour
3 cups milk
1 lb aged, extra-sharp white cheddar, grated
½ cup grated parmesan (optional, but a nice addition)
½ tea salt
1/8 tea white pepper
1/8 tea freshly grated nutmeg
16 oz can imported Italian plum tomatoes (or some fresh or imported canned cherry tomatoes)
1 lb dried penne with lines or small shells
1 ½ cups fresh breadcrumbs
2 T unsalted butter
1 whole chicken breast with skin (about 1 ½ lb), optional
Butter a 3-qt baking dish. Preheat oven to 350F.
If using the chicken breast, place it in a pot and barely cover it with water. Bring it to a boil, covered, then lower the heat a little and boil gently for 10 minutes with the lid ajar. Remove from the heat and let it cool, covered, in the broth.
Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, gradually add the milk, starting slowly to allow it to combine and begin to form a smooth sauce. (If using chicken, you can substitute 1 cup of the light cooking broth for 1 cup of the milk if you want). Raise the heat and let it come to a bubble, until thick, stirring all the while. Reduce the heat and season with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Let it simmer for a few minutes over low heat, stirring so it does not scorch. Add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring until smooth. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Boil the pasta in salted water until just tender; cook it about 2 minutes less than directed. While the pasta is cooking, drain the tomatoes and chop very roughly. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce; fold it in well. Add the tomatoes and fold gently.
Turn the macaroni and cheese into the buttered dish. Sprinkle well with the breadcrumbs to cover completely, and dot with butter. Cover with foil and bake at 350 F for about 15 minutes; remove the foil and cook another 15 minutes, or until bubbling and hot in the center. If you have refrigerated it, bring it room temperature before cooking.
To make fresh breadcrumbs: Trim crusts from firm fresh white bread, tear into large pieces, and put into the food processor. Pulse until you have medium-fine crumbs. Store leftovers in the freezer; thaw before using.