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Category: mac n cheese

brace yourself, baby…

waking up to a wind chill of -6, gliding into my fleece-lined yoga pants (yes, they make them!), my chilly thoughts turn to someone i’ve come to love dearly who is, for the first time in her california-girl life, waking up to this subzero shock to the ol’ ticker. she moved to these parts just as the october winds were picking up, and she thought that was cold! best i can think is: at least it’s not an earthquake. but i figured i owe her a welcome-to-deep-freeze, the chicago version of winter.

dear california girl,

um, welcome to february. bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing as a polar vortex. well, glide open your sliding porch door (if you can dislodge the ice and the snow jamming its tracks), stick out any limb you’re willing to sacrifice, and voila, that’s what the vortex feels like, that’s how cold it can make your blood run.

so, given that this is your first round of the deep freeze we call chicago, the goosebump capital of the midwest, i figured i might pass along the few things that i’ve learned over the years here on the tundra.

first, forget sleek silhouettes. we’re going for bulk here. we like to dress like we’re walking, talking bed pillows. the more layers and fluff we can stuff round our parts, the happier we hum (see “dress union suit” above). extra credit if you can see someone’s eyes. we are big believers in total occlusion of all open face parts. just cover ’em up with whatever might stretch over your head. big socks work in a pinch. but around here, we stock up on headgear with nothing but peep holes. think golf club covers, maybe minus the super-size tassel. COVID masks have nothing on us. we’ve been in the face-blocking business since, well, far back as i can remember. (note: that reminds me, sometimes the cold numbs your brain. just go with it. your gears will warm up again come the fourth of july.)

on the subject of sleeping, we look to the bears and their habits of hibernations. we find it’s important to stock up on lots and lots of berries before gliding into the caves. but instead of berries, plucked off the tangles of bushes, we cruise the grocery-store aisles, foraging wildly for sugars in their un-natural forms. cookies, crackers, whole tubs of häagen-dazs; these all do the trick. we recommend hauling a cardboard box to your bedside; fill to the brim. this way, once you slide under the layers (more on that in a minute) you’ll not have much of a reach should your very cold tummy start to growl like a grizzly.

now, about the bedclothes (see note no. 1: “we’re going for bulk here”). we find it helpful to mound the blankets as if it’s a snow fort, only it’s mohair or wool or your old girl scout sleeping bag. we recommend staying under the covers as long as you can. there’s really no need to expose yourself to the harsh assaults of a cold trip to the bathroom when winds are howling like sirens just out the windows that shake. (note we did not use the Q word — “quake” — because that is a word that belongs to shakier parts of the continent, specifically the state that was yours. again, we pride ourselves on our relative stability here in the land of no nonsense.)

things to do in the arctic: here, we narrow the lens. fact is, there’s a lot you won’t want to do. you will not want to step out the door. so that lobs off a long chunk of the list. you might try turning pages, as long as you’re wearing mittens with lids, a novel invention that allows you to flip back the mitten tops and wiggle your pinkies whenever you must. i’ve heard tell that jigsaw puzzles are fine for a long winter’s nap, but it’s noticeably nettlesome to doze when a runaway piece is lodged under your bum, or stuck down by your toes under the bedsheets. perhaps that’s why some choose to set up their puzzles on a card table shoved next to the bed. daydreaming, i find, tends not to tax. all it involves is pointing your eyes on some wayward spot on the wall, out the window, or up on the ceiling, and then engage in a thought and see where it travels.

should all this well-padded exertion begin to make you hungry for things not stashed in your cave, you might try the polar vortex diet. this involves high-carb fare, mostly smothered in cheese. why do you think the swiss of the alps invented fondue? and look north to wisconsin, where it’s taken as fact that you make it through winter with barrels of cheddar. if you glance over toward iowa (that’s the square of a state just to the west) you’ll discover that they deep-fry whole sticks of butter. again, this makes chicago’s deep-dish pizza (protests late night’s jon stewart, “it’s not pizza, it’s a casserole!”) look svelte and quite chic.

my short list is drawing to a close. fact is, the vortex won’t last forever. and i’ve shared all the basics: wardrobe, fuel, and diversion. mostly, just tough it out. it’s where we here in the middle lands get all our muscle. we’re a somewhat lesser species than those of the arctic circle, and we’d collapse in the tremor of earthquake, but when it comes to facing into the wind howling off the great vast lake, we’re sturdy as they come.

and no richter scale needed.

love, the bundled one

let me know what i’ve missed of the must-know and must-haves in the vortex survival guide. your input, always essential.

just decided to drop a little mac-and-cheese recipe, though the trouble to make it might make you wanna wait till the vortex is lifted. this, from the pages of Stillness of Winter, the beribboned little book i birthed this fall…

Cure-All Mac and Cheese (aka Vortex Survival Fare)

When the bee stings, or the homesick blues need quelling, this oozy spoonful of deliciousness belongs in a mama’s tin of kitchen cure-alls. It’s the ubiquitous remedy at our house for any ailment in the book. (And one or two make-believe ones, besides.) And it’s just what the doctor orders for frosty-cheeked rascals fresh in from the cold.

Provenance: Gourmet magazine, May 1995 

Yield: Serves 8 children

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 1⁄2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon paprika
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound pasta, tubes or wagon wheels or whatever shape suits your fancy (a tube—penne or rigatoni, among the many—fills with the cheesy sauce and makes a fine, pillowy bite)
10 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded coarse (about 2 3/4 cups)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, coarse
1⁄4 cup (or more) Parmesan shavings 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish (the broader the crust, the better). 

In a 6-quart pot, bring 5 quarts salted water to a boil for cooking pasta. 

In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over moderately low heat, and stir in flour and paprika. Cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes; then whisk in milk and salt. Bring sauce to a boil, whisking, and simmer, whisking occasionally, 3 minutes. Remove pan from heat. 

Stir pasta into pot of boiling water and boil, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain pasta in a colander, and in a large bowl stir together pasta, sauce, and 2 cups cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to prepared dish. Macaroni and cheese may be prepared up to this point 1 day ahead and chilled, covered tightly (an indispensable trick when confronting a serious to-do list for a day of, say, birthday or holiday jollity). 

In a small bowl, toss remaining 3⁄4 cup cheddar with bread crumbs and sprinkle over pasta mixture, topping it all with a downpour of Parmesan shavings (a heavy hand with the cheese is never a bad thing, certainly not at my house where my boys insist I do so, preferring their cheese to supersede bread crumbs). 

Bake macaroni and cheese in middle of oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. At last: dig in.


when all else fails…turn to page 200

mac n cheese

for two decades now, ever since may of 1995 when i was plotting my firstborn’s second birthday fete, and i flipped open the pages of my monthly infusion of delicious, gourmet magazine — before it was ruth reichl’s gourmet magazine, before it was defunct, folded into the crypt of long-gone magazines, magazines that shaped our culture and then withered and died, the sad fate of so much of what’s printed in ink on the page — page 200, the page where the binding is coming unglued, the page crusted with splatters of roux, it’s been my no-fail, last-ditch, best-hope-of-filling-a-hole-in-a-heart-by-way-of-the-belly cookery map.

so it was yesterday, a crisp october day, when the sun poured in as if from a flask of molasses, so it was on a day when the boy who’d loped from the car at the school house curb was a boy with a leaden heart. he had so much homework, was so worried about homework, that he’d decided to skip the end-of-the-season soccer gorge on pasta and pizza. instead of hanging with friends, he’d decided he should come home straight after practice.

to make matters a tad bit worse, i wouldn’t be home when he got there. i try hard to keep my nights away to a serious minimum, but last night was a night i’d promised to be elsewhere, in a dim-lit watering hole and song hall, actually, reading words from a page for a very fine purpose, all to raise funds for a most noble cause.

i’m always torn when tugged away from my boys. and at the end of this week, this week when the lights in the kitchen never went out before midnight, because a young soccer player was trying hard to finish all of his homework, often accompanied by the sadness that lingers in our house, it was especially hard to be away.

so i reached for my holy salvation: the plainly-named “Baked Macaroni and Cheese,” ala page 200. it’s a cheesy-buttery bath stirred round and through tubes of wide-mouthed pasta, each tube filling with ooze as much as being wrapped in it. it vies, in our house, with bread pudding, as the neck-and-neck nos. 1 and 2 comforts on a spoon.

over the years, the making it — for me, anyway — is as soothing as it must be for my boys to polish it off in one sitting. assembling its components — the butter, the cheddar, the flour, the milk, the salt, paprika, bread crumbs, and parmesan shavings to finish it off — i slip into priestess mode. my old black cookstove — an industrial-grade contraption that somehow slipped into this old house in the 1970s, never to be removed — is my altar.

i begin my incantations and prestidigitations right there, where the flame is cranked, and the concoctions in my pots begin to bubble, not unlike vats of heavenly potions. with the oven cranked to 375, the kitchen begins to warm. everything about this kitchen ritual is warming. soon, my old sweater is off, and as i stir i imagine my sweet boy coming home to find the big white ceramic souffle dish perched atop the stove, my hand-scribbled note just to the side.

is there a more certain way to say i love you than to have cooked all afternoon? to have reached for the cookery shelf and pulled out the one thing a kid asks for on those nights when his sleepy head hits the pillow but the worries won’t be extinguished?

because a big old vat of mac n’ cheese wasn’t enough, not on this particular day, in the thick of this particular passage, i pulled out the produce bin and piled a mound of apples atop the cutting board. i chopped honeycrisp and granny smith, i didn’t peel — why bother? — and i tumbled the slices into the pot, added a splash of honeycrisp cider, a shake or two of cinnamon, and once again, applied flame to the equation. wasn’t long till the whole house was swimming in eau de apple and buttery-cheese. even the cat ambled back in from the garden.

then i set the table. is there anything that says i was thinking of you quite so quietly, certainly, as coming home to a kitchen table that awaits you, that has your very own napkin and napkin ring at the place where you always sit?

it’s the rhythms we carve into the grain of the day, of the months and the years — simple rhythms, unadorned rhythms, nothing so fancy as a napkin and fork at a place that is yours, set by someone who thought about how it might be to come home harried, and worried, and tired to the bone — that makes coming home feel as if someone just handed you your oldest, comfiest slippers. and a fuzzy sweater to boot.

i’d left the stove light on, and the mac-and-cheese under a foil dome, as i slipped out the door and turned the key. then, not a block from home, i got a message: the soccer player had decided, after all, to skip coming home. he’d hang out with the soccer team, inhale store-bought pasta and delivery pizza.

such is a mama’s existence.

so much for stirring and chopping, in hot pursuit of healing a tattered heart.

but here’s the holy truth: i was the one whose heart was soothed in the long hours of love at the cookstove.

and, besides, mac-n-cheese cold makes for excellent bedtime snack. when the lights go out at midnight.

what’s your when-all-else-fails cookstove concoction?