Monday, September 16, 2013

Mac and Cheese for 23

For the first time in my life I live in a dorm. To be more precise, I live in a beautiful, spacious apartment in a dorm, and I live in it with my partner and son, and I'll be doing work in residence that I am sincerely excited about, but still, it's in a dorm, and this is something new. The reality is starting to sink in that tomorrow three hundred college students will join us in the building. Life is getting interesting.

Before the new students arrived, we hosted our first big event as faculty-in-residence: a dinner party for the residential student staff. I had planned to order catering, but as the day approached I couldn't quell my nagging urge to set out a spread of home-cooked food, the kind they won't be getting in the dining halls.

So here's what we did: we made three huge trays of macaroni and cheese, four roasted chickens, six oversized bunches of kale, and a couple of gallons of iced tea. Before they arrived, I fretted that I'd made way, way too much food, and wondered what on earth I'd do with all the leftovers. Once they arrived, pouring into our apartment all bright, shiny, and confident, I hustled to finish everything while they drank iced tea and made themselves at home. One young man, a fellow food-lover who immediately planted himself in the kitchen, commented casually that macaroni and cheese is the hardest thing to make well. This made me fret further, thinking for a moment that not only had I made too much, but it might not even be good enough.

My fretting about potential leftovers now strikes me as hilarious, and you might be laughing too, if you've ever fed a 19-year-old person, much less twenty of them. They ate every bit of everything, even the kale, with gleeful abandon. It was deeply satisfying and incredibly fun. I have a reliable macaroni and cheese recipe, but I have to confess that it's copied almost entirely from The Grit Restaurant Cookbook. The Grit is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, a food oasis beloved by many, including touring musicians (like myself, in a previous life) for its array of healthy and comforting food. Macaroni and Cheese lies far on the comfort end of the spectrum, with more butter, eggs, and cheese than we should probably be eating, but what's the point of trying to health-up mac and cheese? It should be creamy and rich and make you feel like somebody cares. It felt like a bit of a risk, making homemade food for this big bunch of students (having people over to your house for dinner is aways a risk though, you could burn the food or not have enough or your guests could hate what you make), but we will be working together all year, and cooking simple homemade food for them seemed like the best way I could communicate that I care. What better way to start off this adventure?

Oh, and our food-loving young man ended the night by declaring that the macaroni and cheese was perfect. And he asked for the recipe. So he can give it to his mother.

I think we're all going to get along just fine.

Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 8 as a substantial side-dish
Multiply accordingly for big groups

1 lb macaroni
6 tablespoons butter, divided
2 large eggs, beaten
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 teaspoons salt
pinch black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper (try a big pinch)
6 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups panko breakcrumbs

Preheat oven to 425. Grease a 9 X 13-inch pan

Cook macaroni in a large pot, 8 minutes. Drain well and set aside.

While macaroni is cooking: whisk together in a large bowl the eggs, milk, mustard, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in the same pot, add drained pasta and stir well. Add egg/milk mixture and all the cheese. Stir constantly over medium-high heat until cheese melts and milk and eggs begin to thicken. Continue to cook and stir, at least 5 more minutes (probably more like 15), until mixture is very thick and creamy. Transfer to prepared baking dish.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in saucepan and add breadcrumbs, stirring well. Spread breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese and bake 10- 15 minutes. I like to broil it at the end to brown the top.

Don't expect leftovers.