Right before the end of October, our monsoon season descended. The bleak, dark time was nigh and with it, an unsubtle household energetic shift. I had to bribe people to go to school, our collective energy and work ethic was that low. We have since had a two week reprieve from the rain, which has been replaced by shocking cold. It’s sunny though, which has been a change for us, used as we are to midnight at noon. The other night my oldest said that she needed a hot water bottle and a “comfort book.” It was clearly a night designed for macaroni and cheese. In fact we have books – comfort books – that we refer to as “mac and cheese” books.
When I came home from the hospital after giving birth to my first child – in a violent, unseemly, yet highly surgical manner – my friend Kathy brought me her homemade mac and cheese. It was accompanied by an entourage of moist, dark chocolate brownies, a salad and a bottle of red wine. Picture this banquet before me on my coffee table as I reclined on the couch, a dopey, drugged haze lying like an inadequate afghan over seven kinds of searing bodily pain. That meal remains one of the most memorable of my life. I relished it so thoroughly that I was nearly distracted from checking my newborn’s breathing every few seconds. No, I did not mix Percocet with red wine; I wasn’t in my 20’s, after all.
In truth, I do not have a recipe for mac and cheese, just a mental list of required items: whole wheat pasta, (boiled, but still firm to the bite) shredded cheese, (cheddar, gouda and parmesan make a good mix but use what you have/like) a béchamel of butter, flour and milk, eggs if you like to increase the protein, and a generous snowfall of breadcrumbs over the top. I know there are scads of variations on m&c, but other than alternating the types of cheeses, there isn’t much of a point, at least not for me.
Until tomorrow, at least, it remains bitterly cold. The other day I did an entire abdominal workout in wool socks, a cashmere sweater and jeans that were way tighter than they should be (pasta, I guess). I was too chilly to endure the transitional nudity involved in changing into workout clothes.
One of my favorite stories of all time is that of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage on The Endurance. I pore over Frank Hurley’s remarkable photographs, I watch the films, and I make my husband listen to my admiration of Shackleton’s noble, manly profile. I long to go back in time to serve the whole sodden and suffering crew a steaming 4 by 4 foot chafing dish of mac and cheese. I like to read about cold, I don’t like to live it, even for the frigid seconds of metamorphosis required to go from denim to spandex. After all, as Sir E. S. himself pointed out, “What the ice gets, the ice keeps.”
The other day I was paging through O magazine and drinking tea while my physical therapist worked on my ankle (I figured I was reclining anyway, so why not take advantage of the waiting room magazine pile?). I ran across this delectable shot of Marcus Samuelsson’s macaroni and cheese and I felt sure – so sure – that I was going to make it before the cold snap ended. Then I read the recipe and here’s the thing: it’s supposed to warm up tomorrow, and this dish involves 24 ingredients, (including two different kinds of mustard) and nearly as many steps. If I start now, I just might be able to cook through the night and have it baked before the temperature rises and the rain returns.
But for what? Just to see my daughters cry? My youngest once wept over a homemade pizza I had gone to great effort for. Her tear-wetted slice went in the garbage and now Old School Pizzeria does my dirty work. Know your limits: simple homemade mac and cheese I can handle. This fabulous gourmet version or overwintering with the crew of Endurance on Elephant Island for almost five months without any ovens or wicking fabrics, I cannot.
If you are not sure how to make a béchamel sauce for your m&c, then worry not. Plop 3 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of white flour in a small saucepan and heat on medium low. Let the butter melt and stir until it looks like a gloppy mess. It is best if you heat a cup of milk on another burner at the same time and then add it in and whisk vigorously. I have done it with unheated milk (every single time I have ever made this) but it’s harder to whisk out the lumps. Cook it for a couple minutes, whisking almost constantly, until it loses the scent of uncooked flour.
Everyone has their own ideas for staving off the winter blahs, but I say hunker down with a bowl of m&c and a film about ill-fated voyages to either pole. Raise a spoon, dripping with hot cheese, to the hale, hearty and departed crews of many a ship.
*Though my tastes do not run to Percocet mixed with red wine, I have mixed Pilates with red wine and felt quite well. But that’s, again, because I am not in my 20’s; time is short and I have to multitask. When my husband walked in and saw me taking a sip between sets of Single Leg Circles, he said, “There’s a blog there somewhere.”