It’s New Year’s Eve. This time last year (and the nineteen years before that), I was putting the finishing touches on a casserole for a neighborhood New Year’s Eve party. Today I am chilling champagne for a small family gathering. I find myself thinking about friends and family quite often lately. Something about the holidays–maybe the romantic perfume ads or maybe the happy family movies– reminds us that family is the most important gift of all. Ten people sat around my table for Christmas dinner: my parents, two of my daughters, their partners, the father of my middle daughter’s partner, and my grandson. My husband and I were delighted to have so many with us. When we decided to move to Connecticut, I feared we’d be alone on the holidays. And here we are with a full house. But I found myself thinking about those who couldn’t be there—my eldest daughter and her husband whose schedules keep them working during the holidays and my sister, her husband and their four children. I found myself wishing my nieces and nephews were here to make snowmen. We had a white Christmas, we had a happy Christmas, but it wasn’t the same.
But no two holidays are the same. Every year our lives change. Children grow older and have their own lives with other people. Siblings grow apart because our lives are busy. We lose touch with friends. People move—sometimes just across town but we see them less often. We switch jobs and that alters our daily patterns, so we no longer run into friends on a regular basis. It takes effort and energy to stay in touch. We mean to do things that we don’t. We forget. We run out of time. We get distracted. Excuses. Real life. I try to stay in touch with my friends, but it’s hard. I have obligations here. The time zone differences make phone calls difficult. I like texting and e-mail because I can respond when I do have time. I love Facebook because I get glimpses into the lives of friends and family. Social media is the holiday letter that gets delivered year round.
With social media, we feel connected. And that’s what the holidays are really about. Our lives get transformed; the way we celebrate the holidays alters but we ourselves still need to feel linked to those who are important to us—a thought, a card, a phone call. These connections are different every year, but the essential ingredients—love and friendship—are always there.
We find comfort in our holiday meals: friends and family gather together and we enjoy the food and conversation; we relish the companionship whether we play board games or watch television. We find contentment with those we love. This is why we enjoy ‘comfort foods’ so much. They remind us of our childhoods, of our homes, of simple times. My mac n cheese casserole is a dish like that. Sometimes I bring it to a potluck and someone there will ask me for my recipe. I really can’t give the recipe because I never make it the same way twice. Like my Christmas dinners, the essential two ingredients are always used, but the variations are endless. Like the friends and family who come to a holiday meal, the cheeses used are a wide variety. Blended together, the dish is always delicious.
And so I give you my recipe for Never the Same Way Twice Mac n Cheese. The secret is to open your deli drawer and clean it out. All the leftover ends of cheese go into this recipe. I like a third of the cheese to be cheddar, but Jack is good too. Gouda works well, especially with Jack cheese, (but not smoked gouda. I don’t like smoked cheese in my mac n cheese). I often toss in my parmesan rind. Since I had houseguests, and since I like cheese for lunch, I had a wider variety than usual. This week I used the remnants of some brie served as an appetizer, the leftover cream cheese meant to go on the cranberry bread, the sharp white cheddar bought for my cheese puffs, some milder cheddar bought to go on tacos, some machego bought because I like it, some gorgonzola bought because I was buying figs, and a wedge of pave that I forgot was in the refrigerator. I never have the same leftover cheese. The casserole can never be duplicated—like friends, family, holidays, it is never the same from one serving to the next. Enjoy!
I lb pkg elbow macaroni
½ c all-purpose flour (for those who are gluten-free: Gluten free all-purpose flour works better than rice flour)
½ c butter
2 c milk
6 c cheese (whatever you have on hand) grated or chunked small
Pepper, nutmeg, cardamom to taste
Preheat oven to 350
Cook macaroni according to package directions
Make a roux by melting butter and adding flour gradually until thickened. Add milk a little at a time, allowing white sauce to thicken. When all the milk is added, and the sauce fairly thick, stir in pepper, nutmeg and cardamom. Add cheese a handful at a time, allowing it to melt into the sauce.
Combine cheese sauce with cooked macaroni and pour into a rectangular baking dish (I use a pyrex 9X 13).
Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or cheese sauce is bubbly.
(Note: cooked, crumbled bacon can be added in with the cheese sauce.)
May your New Year be filled with family, friends and love! Celebrate with an open heart!