Thinking Cheesy Thoughts

Photo courtesy of Saveur Magazine - photo by André Baranowski

Our daughter Melissa’s beloved hails from the Carolinas in the deep South (many non-U.S. southerners do not understand why the Carolinas can be ‘The Deep South’ when Florida is not!  Culture and history, my friends.), and has been our guest at Thanksgiving dinner on occasion.  Our family tradition is for each Thanksgiving guest to make one requested addition to the list of dishes for the meal, and Geoff’s is always the same; macaroni and cheese.  And should you be so fortunate as to spend a Thanksgiving as a dinner guest of a Southern family, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll be served mac and cheese as well – it’s a strong Southern tradition.

I can remember, when first learning of this ‘tradition’, of thinking how strange it was to have macaroni and cheese at the Thanksgiving table – but such thinking is to miss an understanding of the southern psyche.  How best can one give thanks for one’s good fortune and well-being?  To a southerner, the answer is to celebrate with those foods which not only bring one comfort, but which are rich beyond the norm.  For anyone familiar with Southern cooking, it’s not new news that the food of the South is most often both a comfort food and rich as well.  But few of those southern delights can be ramped up to an especial level of richness and utter comfort as can mac and cheese.

And that, my friends, is why it is found so often on the Thanksgiving tables of the South.  And, by the way, another strong tradition on southern Thanksgiving tables is for the major attraction to be a cured and smoked ham rather than a turkey.  I’m not talking here of a ‘city ham’, those soft, wet, pink hunks of cryovac wrapped pork which have been mechanically injected with up to 15% or more salty/sweet fluids – a real dry cured country ham needs first a long, slow cooking in water, usually followed by some time in the oven prior to showing up on the table.  Even then, it often is an acquired taste for those not raised in a southern family, and is almost never eaten without going through a multi-day soaking, boiling, and roasting.  Yup, it’s a chore, and the major reason why the traditional southern country ham is reserved for the holidays.

Recently, I noticed a build up of cheese remnants in the deli drawer of the fridge – humm …  what cheesy delight could be made with our cache?  The first thing to jump into my mind was mac and cheese, not too unique or original, but firmly pasted there via a recent article I perused in Saveur magazine, one of the few U.S. food magazines for which I’d still willingly pay regular subscription price.  The issue honed in on various comfort foods, and of necessity, mac and cheese was a featured article, ‘Elbow Room’, including recipes for four different types.

My Pan of Edna Lewis' Southern Style Mac and Cheese

And I also remembered that among those four mac and cheese recipes was one named, Southern Style Macaroni and Cheese which immediately grabbed me – not so much because of its southern roots, but because it was contributed by Edna Lewis, one of my favorite of all southern cookbook authors.  I have three of Ms. Lewis’ wonderful books, and they are among those I’d not sell ever.  No question then, it was Edna Lewis’ mac and cheese that I’d make.

So, is there a difference between a southern style mac and cheese, and all others?  Well, it may be a bit presumptuous of me to make too much of generalized observations, however my own experiences have left me with a feeling that southern mac and cheese is always a wet affair – as opposed to the more solid types that are often served cut into squares, some with a cheese sauce poured over at serving time – I much prefer the very wet, saucy stuff which must be spooned out at serving time, and this is what I’ve become familiar with in the South.

My Adaption Was To Add Mushrooms and Sirimi

An additional characteristic of southern macaroni and cheese is the abundance of chewy, cheesy goodness baked into the top layer of pasta – and without a doubt, when Ms. Lewis reserves half of her cheese for the top of her baking dish, she is looking to maximize that chewy deliciousness.  Interestingly, Beth Kracklauer, the article’s author suggests that too much browning (as in the beautiful Saveur photo of Ms. Lewis’ version at this post’s top) will lead to a breakdown in the saucy texture of the mac and cheese.  I think she may be correct, as you can see, there’s quite a difference between my iteration, and the one in the Saveur photo, which was graciously ‘lent’ for my post.  My pan is certainly ‘saucy’, but there is a suggestion it is on its way to a more solid texture, which is very apparent in the Saveur version and photo – and my pan has not, in my opinion, developed as much ‘browning’ as I’d really like.  Humm …, I’ll work on that.

One final thought- the type of pasta you choose will make a big difference in the character of your final product.  The classic in America is, of course, elbow macaroni – but no one need be restricted by such convention.  In fact, I’ve often found that the use of a larger size pasta is more to my liking, since the larger pasta absorbs less of the sauce -which I want more of- so I often use a large type.  The particular pasta I used here was done so purely by accident, but with beautiful result.  I used a DeCecco, Festonati, #22, which as you can see is a pretty damn big pasta – I had it around because when I see DeCecco selling for less than $1 a lb, I buy it, no matter what shape it is.  Fortunately, this one worked super well in this dish, since its large, hollow shape was perfect for capturing lots of cheesy sauce.  But the very best thing about this particular pasta was its wonderful chewy bite after it was baked – I loved it.  If you try this recipe, don’t neglect to follow the instruction to only cook the pasta halfway done – I think that’s exactly why it had such a beautiful texture when done.

I do hope you’ll get an opportunity to give this wonderful representation of southern mac and cheese a try – yes, it’s super rich, and super over-the-top luxurious, but it’s also super delicious too.  Save it for a special occasion, and make it extra special.


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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10 Responses to Thinking Cheesy Thoughts

  1. It looks fabulous, Doc. My boys grew up eating a pasta cheese bake (as we know it) and there is both something very comforting about it, and definitely something to give thanks for! Our recipe varied over the years, but from memory, they really enjoyed it with the addition of tinned tuna.

  2. Anet says:

    Oh yes, mac’n cheese from the Tennessee South is a side dish, a veggie, a staple and is omnipresent at every “meat-and-three” (restaurant).
    My growing up macaroni and cheese dish on the no-meat-on-Friday day was so plain though cheese was a staple in our Wisconsin home so I like to think the taste was better than average. Now my own mac’n cheese casserole has sun dried tomatoes and fresh basil (and sometimes with whatever cheese is available, like you.)

  3. Macaroni Cheese was a staple growing up, all the kids would request it as a favourite. There is something really comforting about the dish. It certainly doesn’t scream health food, but it does scream tasty!…and I’m a sucker for any Southern style cooking.

    It’s been so long since I made it, I can’t even remember if my kids like it…must be time for a revist. Thanks Doc.

  4. Macaroni cheese was not part of my childhood except in so far as it turned up for school dinners and was always overcooked, stodgy as hell and didn’t have much cheese. I guess I missed out somewhere along the line as so many people seem to adore it! I’m not big on baked cheese dishes, something about the way the cheese goes oily….

    • drfugawe says:

      One of our more respected and objective sources for good cooking info over here is called, Cook’s Illustrated – they do a lot of real research that is very helpful (once you get past the problem of personal ‘taste’). I remember a piece they did on mac and cheese, and they labeled it ‘perhaps America’s most consistently poorly made dish’. I’ve had my share of bad ones – but this ain’t one!

      I think most folks over-bake it, until it’s all dried out – plus mac and cheese requires a lot of liquid, and most folks cheat on that. Then, there are some cheeses that simply don’t melt well – those are the ones that separate and get oily.

      You owe yourself an opportunity to sample a really good representation, girl! Either that, or another childhood.

  5. Melissa says:

    Geoff & I loved this article! We’ve definitely been perfecting the mac & cheese holiday recipe for a while now. Always fun to find new ways to tweak the recipe and make it even better (though must admit, Geoff’s too much of a purist to get with adding surimi & mushrooms!). Liked the tips on liquid and cooking times – those seem like the integral pieces to turn this simple dish into a holiday worthy masterpiece!

    Last holiday season – can’t remember if it was around Thanksgiving or Christmas – I saw this crazy soul food mac & cheese for a crowd recipe that looked so good. It was on a magazine website like Salon or Slate, in a holiday recipe round up article, and this recipe was presented as a video by a college aged woman…anyway, I’ve been searching for it all morning to send it to you but so far no luck. The woman talked about using Cheez Whiz, and swore it was THE secret to moisture balance and also that she had converted many many of her most foodie-elitist friends despite their initial balking at the low rent ingredient. I was intrigued enough to want to try it but now can’t find the recipe!! Anyway if & when I do, we will give it a whirl & I’ll let you know if it’s worth sharing – you never know! I did grow up in the (fake) deep south, so I just might be low rent enough to love it!!

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey Kids!
      This really was the best mac and cheese I’ve had in a long time – hope you’ll get a chance to try it, or to at least incorporate a few of its elements into your next iteration.

      I think I may feel about Cheese Whiz as Geoff does about adding sirimi – just ain’t gonna happen.

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