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Macaroni and Cheese for the Culinary Artistry Impaired

By Cindy Murphy

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Mac and Cheese by CindyGouda morning ...

How's that for a cheesy pun to start off today's cheesy food topic: cheese.

Most specifically macaroni and cheese, of which I started getting cravings for after reading Jean’s blog, “Foodie Thoughts.” Real homemade macaroni and cheese, and not the plastic-tasting stuff out of the box, which I have mastered making under my protest, and under pressure from my youngest daughter who prefers the boxed kind.

My "real" macaroni and cheese is a mixture of cheeses, mushrooms, onions, chopped spinach or whatever else I can find hanging out in the fridge, and is layered, and baked with a crusty au-gratin topping on it, which is again, made from whatever is hanging around.

I like to cook, and despite the self-perpetuated myth that I can’t, I’m actually pretty good at it. I just can’t follow a recipe. The urge to add, subtract, substitute, and play around with ingredients is too strong to resist. As a result my kitchen by the time I’m done looks like a chemistry lab after an experiment gone wrong, sometimes complete with stuff dripping from the ceiling and down the walls. I’ve never made anything too terribly horrible to eat….but my family is thankful I’ve never tried some of these experiments a second time (especially whoever is in charge of clean-up). There are dishes of mine they ask for repeatedly though, and my macaroni and cheese is one of them.

I love macaroni and cheese. And apparently I'm not alone. On average, Americans consume more than one-half pound of cheese per person, per week. In 1937, Kraft Foods introduced the first boxed macaroni and cheese, and today sells approximately a million boxes per day.

Shhhhh ... I hope that doesn’t upset the Cheese Gods! They'll take a-whey our cheese eating privileges for such blasphemous sacrilege! Nothing against Kraft and the millions of people, my daughter included, who eat it, but the boxed stuff is to macaroni and cheese, what American cheese is to real cheese. American cheese is not cheese; it is cheese product – whatever that means. And American cheese in macaroni and cheese?! In my opinion, it might as well be the thin plastic film the stuff comes wrapped in; it has the same texture ... although American cheese is the best for grilled cheese sandwiches to go with tomato soup. But for macaroni and cheese – never!

I like to use a couple of different cheeses; usually shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack because those two are pretty much staples in the refrigerator.

Eye-ball along with me, and I'll take you step-by-step through the process of making it up as you go along – there are no exact measurements; you have to estimate each time to get the total Culinary Artistry Impaired Cooking Experience.

1. Cook pasta ... yes, despite rumors to the contrary, I have actually mastered the Art of Boiling Water.

2. Rinse and drain.

3. Place a layer of pasta in the bottom of a buttered, large, really deep baking dish; the deeper the better.

4. Next comes a layer of cheese (or if you're adding other goodies, such as chopped veggies, add those next, and then the cheese).

5. Repeat layering until there are at least three layers of everything, ending with a layer of cheese.

6. Pack it down, because you will have over-estimated the amount of pasta to cook, and the baking dish will be overflowing. Pack it down again, just to be sure it stays put in the dish.

7. Whisk together one or two….sometimes three beaten eggs, and about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of milk depending on how much you over-estimated how much pasta to cook. Add your spice preferences (I like black pepper, paprika, parsley, a bit of cayenne pepper and a dash or two of hot sauce).

8. Stab the packed-down pasta and cheese layers with a knife, making sure you stab all the way down to the bottom of the dish. This allows the milk and egg mixture to seep through the layers; without this Stabbing Step it will run off the top of the dish because undoubtedly you will have packed it too tight.

9. Pour milk and egg mixture over the top.

10. The last layer is au-gratin. This step involves rummaging through the cupboard and searching for whatever ingredients you have that'll be suitable ... I usually end up using seasoned salad croutons plopped in a saucer of melted butter, then a sprinkling of fine bread crumbs over that.

11. Bake until done....approximately 20-30 minutes in an oven set with the dial at half-mast, which is probably around 350 degrees; I'm not exactly sure because I scrubbed the numbers off the oven dials when I first moved into this house in a cleaning frenzy.

12. Enjoy ... for a couple of days at least, due to pasta over-estimation.