Grown Up Macaroni and Cheese

When we were growing up, my younger brother and I were lucky enough to have a housekeeper who lived with us. Her official title was housekeeper, but really she was more like a live-in grandmother. Her name is Mary Hunt, she is 88 years old and lives in Greenspond, Newfoundland. She still lives on her own, in a yellow clapboard house with green trim. When you stand on her front porch you see the ocean.
This past summer, The King of Soup and I traveled to beautiful Newfoundland with our kids. We went for two glorious weeks (never enough time) and experienced the best of the best (beautiful Gros Morne, whales, puffins, great friends, family, and B&B’s wedges with gravy), and the worst of the worst (fog as thick as pea soup and having to wear a warm jacket in August). One of the things on the ‘best’ list was visiting with Mary and bringing my husband and two children to meet her. I hadn’t seen Mary in person since I was 18 just before I left for university; although we continue to stay in touch through Canada Post (she still sends me $10 for my birthday!).

Needless to say, we all enjoyed the visit. As we sat in her little kitchen, with her wood stove cranking out the heat and helping to warm our cold and foggy bones, we had Purity crackers with margarine and jam, tea with Carnation evaporated milk, and homemade fruitcake. She apologized for not being able to make us lunch but says she just wasn’t up to it. If she had been able to cook for us, there is only one request I would have made, and that is for her homemade Macaroni and Cheese.

Before I left for university, there were three recipes I asked Mary to share with me. They were for White Bread (she used to make 6 loaves every Sunday and I can still picture my mother ripping open a steaming hot loaf and dipping her piece in a mixture of milk and molasses), Sour Cream Coffee Cake (made on special occasions, with a thick brown sugar crumble on top), and Macaroni and Cheese (a staple at 26 Waterford Bridge Road).
I often make her recipe for Mac ‘n’ Cheese – but I divide it into two portions. One is for the kids (they haven’t yet realized the amazingness of the crunchy, cheesy, buttery bread crumb topping and they prefer it before it gets baked in the oven). The other portion is for the grownups and to that I add hot sauce, caramelized onions, and panko.
The basic recipe is below, and in brackets I tell you how to fancy it up.
2 cups elbow macaroni, boiled and strained
2 cups cheddar cheese (I use 1 cup extra old cheddar, ½ cup edam, ½ cup parmesan – you can mix it up however you want to)
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
2 cups milk (I use skim but Mary used to use 2%)
Salt and pepper
Breadcrumbs (about 1 – 1.5 cups, depending on how crunchy you like the top)
Caramelized onions
Sambal Olek (hot sauce)
Panko – Japanese bread crumbs – mix these with regular bread crumbs to take it to the next level of crunchiness
Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour. Mix until the flour is blended into the butter. Lower the heat and cook this mixture for a few moments (this is your roux and the longer you brown it, the more flavourful it will be – but don’t let it burn!)
Add the milk and keep the heat on medium. Stir until the mixture thickens (coats the back of a wooden spoon).
Once the milk mixture is thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the grated cheese. You need to take it off the heat at this point otherwise the cheese and milk will curdle. 
Mix the cooked macaroni into the sauce once the cheese has been stirred in. Add salt and pepper to taste. You might want to leave the pepper out of the kids’ portion, if your kids are anything like my kids.
If you are portioning off the mixture, take out the amount your kids will want to eat, and then put the rest to the side while you cook your onions.
Slice sweet onions thinly and put them in a frying pan with 1 – 2 tbsps grapeseed oil. The oil should be hot before you put the onions in the pan. Cook the onions first on high heat for a few minutes, then lower the heat and cook them on low to medium until they are golden and brown. Remove from heat. 
Stir the onions into the macaroni and cheese mixture. Add some Sambal Olek (or other hot sauce) to taste.
Pour it all into an 8 x 8 casserole dish and top with breadcrumbs. If you took out half the mixture for the kids, the 8 x 8 pan will be too big so you will need to either find a smaller casserole dish, or make more of the recipe from the beginning (x the recipe by 1.5). 
If you are using panko, you can either mix it in with the regular breadcrumbs, or use just panko. Dot the top of the breadcrumbs with some knobs of butter. You can also grate some additional parmesan or cheddar for the top of the breadcrumbs. But be careful not to put too much cheese on top – you want there to be some crispy breadcrumbs available for biting.
Bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes, until golden on top and bubbling inside. I use a glass casserole so I can see the insides bubbling.
Serve hot!
Note: If you are wondering where the onions are in this photo, there are none. As I was prepping the ingredients I realized I was out of onions!!! But it was too late to stop at that point.

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