Mom’s “Mac N Cheese”

This week my soul screams for BBQ; but Mother Nature is recommending we stick to a winter menu by providing cold, wet weather. I’ve decided to go somewhere in between.

I put some chicken legs in the oven to roast, the whole leg and thigh just like my husband likes and like my mother used to make all of the time. They’re easy I rubbed them with a little bit of olive oil and dry spices (garlic/onion powder, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper) and popped them into the oven preheated to 350 degrees. They take about 90 mins and can be eaten plain with just the spice coating or my Husband’s favorite way with BBQ sauce. I used a blackberry one that I made a couple of weeks ago. I basted them more than once throughout the cooking time just to make sure the skin was crispy and caramelized, but still sticky with sauce. These are great hot or cold so I made extra to eat for the next few days. There’s enough for a couple of lunches and maybe even dinner tomorrow.

My Mom’s “Mac N Cheese” is the perfect accompaniment to chicken; I know that for sure because that’s how she served it all of the time. Shake N Bake Chicken legs, mac n cheese and canned corn. I remember it all like it was yesterday and if you ask my sister she remembers it like a nightmare of sorts. I’ll just say it wasn’t her favorite meal and I doubt she’s ever made it for herself in her adult life, although I’m sure she made it for our mother a few times. Like many of my childhood meals I’ve taken the memory and reimagined it to today’s life standards.

I’ve made this recipe in a few ways over the years. My Mother’s explanation of it is that “people in the South made it this way”. We live in Canada so the “south” she was referring to all those years ago could be almost anywhere. I knew she meant the American South, and she often tried to idealize it as an option in Scarlett O’Hara’s party planning book. Realisitically it was easy and super cheap to make; the perfect 70’s family meal. Recently my curious mind wanted to know more about this family legacy. Knowing my Mother’s version and that my grandmother often made something similar that my Mother called gross because the tomatoes my Mother loved were replaced by condensed tomato soup. With this in mind I set out to discover the possibilities. With the two versions up for consideration I turned to the Google to see what history I could find. While it did not seem to come from Scarlett’s South it did come from ad execs in the Big Apple, so they were somewhat South of us lol. My Grandmother’s version came from the glossy pages of wimmin’s magazines dating back to the 1970’s. It was a weekday meal designed to be slapped together by the decade’s modern Mom after she worked all day and before she cleaned the house. The casserole was a miracle of easy starter ingredients that allowed the Mom’s to multi task after a short prep period. Casseroles were not knew – Shepherd’s Pie for instance has been around forever – but these casseroles started with boxed, canned and frozen ingredients all promising to be quick, nutritious, so easy to follow, with an average serving cost friendly to the budget, that families were supposed to turn their backs on the growing fast food trend and opt for what amounted to creating fast food at home.

I agree with my Mom the original version with tomato soup is gross. I also think her version with chunks of whole tomato is equally disgusting. So to make me happy this recipe needed some serious change. I’ve made this many times with many variations. I’ve tried tomato sauce, tomato passata, tomato juice and fresh tomatoes. I like tomato juice the best. I’ve tried adding fresh onion and garlic to the tomato and I hated it. I’ve added vegetables like broccoli and mushroom. There was no place for them in this recipe. By all means have them steamed or sautéed on the side, but not in the pasta. Even meat, my favorite part of every meal does not belong in this pasta. I settled on dry herbs and spices added to the juice. I like oregano, thyme, garlic and onion with salt and pepper to taste of course. I just add the spices to the juice right out of the can; you don’t have to cook the sauce before adding the pasta to it. I always choose good Durham wheat Italian pasta, about 1 pound, 454g dry. After cooking the pasta el dente drain and add it still hot to the tomato juice mixture and allow it to sit for 15-30 mins. This will allow the pasta to absorb the juice. Any shape of pasta will work here, I like to choose one that has pockets to hold the sauce like elbow macaroni or Scooby doo’s.

While the pasta sits you can turn your attention to the crust. No 70’s casserole is worth its name if it doesn’t have a buttery, cheesy crackery crust. This confection of perfection is no different. One thing my Mother taught me is this crust can be anything from the original suggestion of Ritz cracker crumbs to pretzels if you prefer, with a plethora of options in between. Today I had some sesame bread sticks. I crushed them in the food processor with a sleeve of plain old soda crackers. I added the same dry spices as in the tomato sauce and some parmesan cheese. When mixed with a half cup of melted butter I had about 3.5 cups of the topping. You can use as little or as much as you want. I like the cracker layer so mine is generous.

This dish is so easy to assemble. I always use a recyclable aluminum catering pan because this will leave a mess behind in a regular dish that no one in my house wants to clean up. I start by layering the pasta into the pan. There should be some extra liquid for the pasta to absorb while it bakes in the oven. The cracker layer goes on top. To that I add a pile of cheddar cheese (hence mac n cheese description in name) and bake on 350 degrees for about 45mins. Often like today I bake it a little longer until the cheese becomes its own cracker crust. The added crunch and saltiness of the cheese crust gives the dish a little something extra. For many people that is too cooked for the topping so you have choices, add the cheese at the very end so it’s melty and liquidy or take it out of the oven at about the 45mins mark. The crispy cheese crust reminds me of the layer of Kraft singles that adorned my Mother’s version. The squares never lost their shape and often turned into little overcooked cheese like chips. Even melty there was no doubt to their origin. If we were lucky Velveeta was the cheese of choice; that was a very rare occasion. I like the memory so I create it with real cheese.

I love this dish and I could suggest at least 20 little tweaks off the top of my head that would turn it into a different dinner every time. For me I like the basic. It’s not really macaroni and cheese. It’s not really a recipe long lost from the days of Gone with the Wind; but it is a great memory from my childhood. A meal I’ve been able to carry over for the comfort factor while changing almost everything about it to make it mine. I don’t think the Campbell’s Soup Company would recognize my Sunday dinner as their weeknight pasta bake, yet I’m sure that’s where it truly came from. My version, like theirs, is quick and tasty. Either would be great any day of the week and both are effective from multiple perspectives like taste, ease, time and cost effectiveness. This recipe is also great for meal prep. It can be used for lunches, as the main or a side dish to dinners and it can be included in freezer meals or frozen whole for quick dinner on another day when you’re in a hurry. I also like that it can be made in a pinch from staple items usually on hand. Serve it with a green salad and unexpected guests think you made something special just for them.

I can see why it was one of my Mom’s go to meals. I don’t like it that much; but I take great comfort in the memories every time it takes center stage on my table. Each bite is like looking into my childhood. I can see my Mom’s crazy orange kitchen. I can imagine my family crowed around the pleather breakfast nook, for every meal. I can hear our laughter and see the good times when we were a young family of five. Those times were many lifetimes ago and all I have left are the memories. Those were the good times, the memories I never want to forget. For me Sunday dinner was perfect this week. Just like my Mom used to make, with me written all over it!

Mom’s “Mac N Cheese”

1 1litre can tomato juice

1 pound dry pasta cooked al dente

Dried spices – garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper

3 cups crushed cracker crumbs or topping of your choice

½ cup melted butter

1 cup grated parmesan cheese

3 cups grated cheddar

Mix tomato juice with at least 1 teaspoon each of spices, or more if you like intense flavor. Cook and drain pasta, add it to tomato mixture and allow to sit for at least 15 mins. While waiting for pasta mix crushed crackers, butter, parmesan and dried spices together. Put pasta and sauce into casserole dish and top with cracker mix. Spread the crackers evenly and top with cheese. Bake on 350 degrees 45 mins until bubbly or longer to create crispy cheese crust if desired. Allow to rest 10 mins out of oven and serve.