Family, Recipes

Macaroni and cheese.

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This is the macaroni and cheese I grew up on.

It’s not like most people’s. There’s no sauce, per se, bechamel or otherwise. Nothing fancy. There’s barely anything to it I’d call a technique.

Cheese, pasta, milk, pepper. Sometimes bacon. But that’s basically it.

It comes from my great-grandmother, a small woman of large stature. Grammy. She was still around when I was little. I was 9 when she died at 93. My family still tells stories about her.

The time she was on the phone and my aunt Ginevra, a teenager then, harassed her thinking she couldn’t do anything about it and Grammy threw a plate like Frisbee and it broke on the wall over Ginevra’s head.

The way her husband, The Gebe, would say “Just a sliver, mother” when she offered pie, then she’d come back with basically a whole pie.

Gram and The Gebe were New Yorkers. Both grew up poor. When Grammy was little, she was taken away from her family when they went for a while to debtors prison. The Gebe shoveled coal into basements and delivered telegrams. He got his first job when he was 11. He was the first president of the Yonkers firefighters’ union when they organized in 1939.

His parents were Irish. Her father was English, her mother a New Yorker. From the 1930 Census, I know they paid $55 a month for rent in Yonkers that year for an apartment for the two of them and their three children. He was 40 then, she 35.

Grammy saw to it her own family didn’t know hardship the same way she did. They moved out to California to follow their children, temporarily at first, then full-time when the family grew. My mother is one of seven surviving children of Gram and Gebe’s only daughter. Each of them had at least two kids. And Grammy liked to provide for everybody at the table.

A lot of what she made I’ve never seen done the same way elsewhere. Her cheesecake in particular. But also her macaroni and cheese.

You don’t have to do this, but know that she would eat it with ketchup. The woman loved ketchup. Even put it in scrambled eggs. Sometimes when I eat the leftovers of this macaroni and cheese, I’ll add some in for her sake along with some hot sauce. For some reason that works better with what gets reheated.

I modify her recipe only slightly. And even then not all the time. But for a nice big batch of Grammy’s macaroni and cheese in my house, it’s this:

  • 2 pounds elbow macaroni, cooked most of the way and drained
  • 2 pounds medium-sharp or sharp Cheddar cheese, cubed
  • half-pound smoked Cheddar cheese, cubed
  • whole milk
  • butter
  • pepper
  • optional additions: grated Parmesan cheese, goat cheese, uncooked but sliced bacon

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a large Dutch oven.

Combine about two-thirds of the sharp and smoked cheddar (and the goat cheese or bacon, if using) in a bowl with the pasta. Layer in to the Dutch oven a little at a time, adding Parmesan to each layer. (Make sure there isn’t too much cheese at the bottom or it will get more crusty than you planned.)

On the top, add the rest of the Cheddars — you should have enough to cover nearly the whole surface — and sprinkle with more Parmesan. Crack lots of fresh black pepper over the top. Pour the milk slowly but steadily around the edge of the whole pot.

Bake covered for 30 minutes, then uncovered for 30 minutes. If you’re one of the weirdos who doesn’t like macaroni and cheese crusty on top, take the lid off for only the last 10 or so minutes.

Take out of the oven, blot off some of the oils with a paper towel and let cool for at least five minutes.

Eat. And think fondly of Gram and Gebe.

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