Macaroni and Cheese with Mustard Thyme Breadcrumbs

My maternal grandmother was only 5 feet tall but packed a truckload of attitude into every inch. Edith Palm was one of four kids born to poor Swedish immigrants in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1905. All four kids were tough, funny, hard drinking products of a dysfunctional household but they loved their mother fiercely.

As adults, they gathered every Saturday night, come hell or high water, at their mothers for dinner. It was the place where they first introduced the boyfriends and girlfriends that would eventually become husbands and wives. They ate too much, drank too much, and sang songs accompanied by Edie on the organ.

My grandfather fell as hard for Edie’s family as he did for her. Ralph Reid was from strict, puritanical stock and had never experienced anything like Saturday night with the Swedes. He was an MIT trained engineer working at GE and he wasted no time convincing Edie to marry him.  Despite his willingness to join the fun, he was permanently coined “The Puritan” that first Saturday night and the name stuck.

The marriage certainly changed Edie’s economic status but not her low brow ways. Dirty jokes and swearing were staples of her conversational style and it didn’t matter who she was talking to. She dressed to the nines every day but refused to pay top dollar on principle. Filene’s Basement in Boston was her domain and you didn’t get in between her and a cashmere sweater on sale if you valued your life. And her favorite food was Macaroni and Cheese.

As far as she was concerned, her day technically began at 4:00 when she felt justified drinking her first rye and water. She smoked Vantage cigarettes one after the other, and never stopped complaining about our cat (“Jesus Christ, get that rat out of the house!”) or hassling my mother to get me a “permanent wave.” (“Her hair is too goddamn straight.”) The complaints and hassles were always followed by her deep throaty laugh.

Yes, my fondest memories of her are not the makings of a Hallmark special. She didn’t bake us cookies, come to watch our school plays or buy us that just right gift at Christmas that made you feel special and loved. She was not really a good grandmother, or for that matter a good mother. But I loved her. She was a larger than life character with a wicked sense of humor that set her apart from the straight and narrow conservative relatives of my friends growing up in Lancaster, PA.

The first thing I think of when I think of Edie is her sitting at the kitchen table for most of her visit enveloped in cigarette smoke and the cacophony of tinkling ice and bracelets as she sipped her drink. Sometime around my 10th birthday, Edie decided I was old enough to hear dirty jokes. I barely understood most of them but there was one in particular that haunted me then and baffled me for years. And it goes like this.

Jenny and Sophie were sitting on the back porch, shelling peas on a hot summer day, when Jenny turned to Sophie and said “Ya know what I could go for right now? A bucket of stiff penises.” And Sophie replied, “Nah, you want a bucket of limp ones. You get more of ‘em.”

Let that sit for a moment. I’m 10. Beyond the titillation of my grandmother saying the word penis, I have no idea what this joke means. I assume, like most of her jokes, that I will understand it when I grow up.

But then I do grow up. And it still makes no fucking sense. First, multiple penises…what good are a bucket full of dicks?  Then, dismembered penises…. if you don’t want the man attached, there’s a solution to that and it’s called a dildo. The older I got, the more my grandmother’s jokes confounded me, and the more twisted her sex life seemed.

On her death bed, my grandmother still had sex on her mind but not the way I expected. Out of nowhere she turned to me and said, “I never understood sex. Your grandfather used to climb on top of me and love it but I thought it was for the birds.” And then she went back to sleep. Sex made as little sense to her as an adult as it did to me as a 10-year old.

I have inherited many things from my grandmother. While my brother and sister are both 6’ plus, I am a compact 5’4”. Swearing is one of my greatest joys. I love to thrift for clothes, wear too many bracelets and every Friday night we host dinner at our house where we eat too much, drink too much and blow off steam. The one and only recipe that was handed down to me by my grandmother was macaroni and cheese and I have made it throughout the years for big parties.

Her recipe  has evolved to this version from Cook’s Country because it can be made ahead or even frozen and still remains creamy when baked. The cream and broth based béchamel doesn’t separate the way milk does when made ahead. But the addition of Worcestershire sauce is all Edie.

This is my go to for entertaining where kids are involved. Depending on the number of people you are feeding, you can make it all in one 16×9 pan or make two 8×8 pans serving one now and freezing the other for another meal down the road. This recipe doubles nicely with no adjustments needed.

Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from Cook’s Country)

Serves 8-10

6 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

4 cups shredded Monterey jack cheese

2 cups shredded extra sharp cheddar

1 lb. of pasta (elbow, shells or corkscrew shape are the best)

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Mustard Thyme Breadcrumbs (Recipe below)

Butter a 16×9 pan or 2 8×8 pans.

Cook the pasta in 4 its of salted water with 1 tablespoon of salt for 3 minutes until barely softened. Drain and layout on a cookie sheet to cool.

Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, mustard and cayenne pepper stirring constantly until golden, 2-3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the cream and broth. It will seize up when you first add the liquids but keep whisking as you slowly add them and the mixture will become smooth. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium high heat. Keep an eye on it until it boils so you can turn it down right away and it won’t burn and stick to the bottom of the pan. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat to medium. Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes until it is thickened and coats the back of a wooden spoon.

Off the heat, add the cheese, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper and Worcestershire sauce.

Add the pasta to the sauce and pour into the 16×9 pan or divide between the 2 8×8 pans.

If refrigerating or freezing, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to two days or freeze for up to a month. Refrigerate or freeze breadcrumbs separately. (Recipe below)

If cooking right away, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and bake at 375 for 20-30 minutes.

If baking from refrigerated, bake at 375 for 15 minutes. remove from the oven and stir. Then sprinkle with breadcrumbs and bake for another 20.

If baking from frozen, bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes, remove from the oven and stir. Then sprinkle with breadcrumbs and bake for another 20.

Mustard Thyme Breadcrumbs (from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

Double, triple or quadruple this recipe and keep the breadcrumbs in the freezer for anytime you need breadcrumbs. I could eat them by the bowlful on their own. They are particularly good tossed into a salad with toasted pine nuts.

2 cups fresh breadcrumbs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons thyme leaves

2 teaspoons chopped flat leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 375.

Put the breadcrumbs in a large bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat and when the foam subsides, turn off the heat and whisk in mustard, thyme and parsley. Pour the butter mixture over the bread crumbs and toss until completely and evenly coated.

Transfer the breadcrumbs to a baking sheet and toast 10-12 minutes, tossing occasionally, until golden brown and crisp.