"There is absolutely no substitute for the best. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing."--James Beard,The Fireside Cookbook, 1949
Oddly enough, my mother never made macaroni and cheese. Once, when I was about twelve, I was over at the Gallaghers' house, another Army family near where we lived, in Worms, Germany. Mrs. Gallagher was cubing orange cheddar to make mac and cheese and I felt the sharpest longing for it. Perhaps, like beer, it was deemed too lowbrow by my mother. So I guess it makes sense that when I salvaged James Beard's American Cookery from her library, I made the macaroni and cheese right away.
This cookbook, published in 1972 by Little, Brown, was bought by my mother when we returned from our three years in Germany. Beard loved food, period, but especially American. He traveled the country in search of its regional foodways. So this book, written before the food renaissance, is a treasure. "American" doesn't mean non-ethnic; he champions Italian-American and other melting-pot "cookery" as well. One quirky thing about the book is that he spells "pasta" with an "e" at the end: "paste." In the "Grains and Pastes" chapter, on page 588, is the quintessential macaroni and cheese. It's the baked kind, with a white sauce. I used this recipe back when I was first pregnant, when I craved cheese in all forms, and I've never looked back. I soon memorized it, which makes cooking it so much easier.
Soon I made it my default go-to recipe for families with new babies. And we have it about once a month, with extra sharp white cheese from the local warehouse store. I always, always double the recipe. I may have even quadrupled it once! It's rich and creamy in the inside, crusty and golden on top. There is no other macaroni and cheese.
Here is the recipe, doubled, with my annotations:
American Cookery's Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. macaroni (cavatappi is fun here, too, but not classic)
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt (you may not need this much)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
Dash Tabasco (I don't do this, I forgot this was here! Guess I didn't memorize all.)
2 to 3 cups grated Cheddar cheese (don't buy pre-grated, the sharper the better)
Buttered crumbs (I rarely bother)
Boil the macaroni in salted water until just tender. Drain well. Prepare a white sauce--melt the butter in a heavy saucepan, blend with the flour, and cook several minutes over medium heat. (Two minutes maybe; don't let it get past golden) Heat the milk to the boiling point, stir in the flour-butter mixture, and continue stirring till it thickens. add the seasonings and simmer 4 to 5 minutes. Butter a baking dish or casserole (13 x 9). In it arrange alternate layers of macaroni, sauce, and cheese, ending with cheese. Cover the top with buttered crumbs. bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the sauce is bubbly. Serve at once.
Now that I'm reading the actual recipe, I see that what I memorized is really my own adapted version, which is: Blend the grated cheese in with the thickened white sauce, off the heat (instead of layering). Cover until the macaroni is ready. Drain the macaroni well, return to pot, and add cheese sauce. Mix well and pour into baking dish.