So, do you see how the Cheez-It Scrabble crackers spell out Happy Chanukah and Chag Sameach on my macaroni and cheese casserole? Please notice because absolutely nobody else did. They just dove in and devoured it.
Anyway, I always make mac and cheese for Chanukah.
Cheese is a traditional thing to serve on this holiday because of the heroism of Yehudit, who tricked the Syrian-Greek general Holfernes into drinking too much strong wine by making him thirsty with salty cheese. When he passed out, she cut off his head, ending the seige against Bethulia, and leading to a great military victory for the Jews.
My sister joked (while downing her share of the mac and cheese) that the miracle of Chanukah is that we survive eating all the fried and cheesey food every year.
I have been working on my mac and cheese recipe for years, and it is very, very good.
Pearl Bailey’s recipe in Pearl’s Kitchen (pp. 145-47) inspired me. Her recipe is short on specifics and long on philosophy. Here is her thinking, distilled down: (1) slightly undercook the pasta; (2) rinse and drain it well to get rid of surface starch and eliminate stickiness; (3) toss pasta with salt and pepper to taste and lots of melted butter, 1/2 cup per pound of macaroni; (4) add lots of cheese; (5) add milk to almost cover; (6) bake at 350 degrees until the cheese melts and then stir well and adjust ingredients; and (7) it tastes even better the next day.
The amount of cheese, I have found, should be about equal weight with the pasta. So, for one 9″x13″ pan, I use a pound of macaroni and a pound of cheese. You can cut back the butter to about 1/4 cup per pound of pasta. Instead of milk, I use either a can of evaporated milk or half and half and some whole milk. The evaporated milk is something slightly easier to always have on hand, but the half and half is quite good. Use anywhere from 12 to 16 ounces.
Here is the thing that really adds a lot more cheese kick: use crushed cheese crackers mixed with melted butter as a topping. This is key.
More advice: Iusually make this ahead. I bake the mac and cheese just until the cheese melts, covered (Pearl says to do this uncovered). Then I stir it up to combine the cheese and milk and adjust the salt, pepper, and add more cheese if necessary. When you take it out and start stirring, it will look unpromising, but a cheese sauce will form as your stir, and you will have great flavor if you adjust the seasonings properly. Then, if I am not serving right away, I let the mac and cheese cool and I refrigerate it. I top it with the crumbs when I reheat. Reheat gently, or the mac and cheese sauce will seperate out and get all greasy. Pearl recommends reheating very slowly, with some extra milk, “to preserve that wonderful softness.”
If you want to serve this right away, here is what you do. After stirring up the mac and cheese and adjusting the flavor, stick it back in the oven to get crusty on top (Pearl does not call for a crumb topping, although I really can’t recommend the cheese crackers highly enough).