When the weather is cool, my appetite gravitates toward comfort food, which tends to be tasty, filling, fattening and unglamorous. And so it was that I decided a couple of weeks ago to indulge a craving for homemade macaroni and cheese.
I have no idea when I had last eaten a homemade macaroni and cheese casserole. Twenty years? Thirty? It was certainly part of the menu rotation when I was a child, before Velveeta became suspect in large segments of the eating population, but I am not sure that I had ever made a macaroni and cheese casserole in adulthood.
As I cruised the grocery aisles, shopping for ingredients, the thought occurred to me that maybe no one makes mac and cheese from scratch anymore, that the boxes containing elbow macaroni and cheese powder have come to define this particular dish. There certainly was a large selection of easy ways out in the prepared foods section.
I also worried that I wouldn't be able to find the Velveeta, until I ran into an end cap stacked high with the trademark yellow boxes and cans of Ro-Tel tomatoes, for all the New Year's revelers who would be making cheese dip in a Crock-Pot. On some level, this reaffirmed my faith in America, where traditions are slow to die.
If I had discovered that Velveeta was no longer being sold, that also would have reaffirmed my faith that Americans can make intelligent food choices. While people have been eating this "processed cheese product," whatever that is, for 90 years to no obvious ill effect, anyone who has handled Velveeta is aware of its rubbery and synthetic texture. It's just not natural.
Personally, I imagine it gliding through the stomach, impervious to the digestive juices there, and leaving a plastic coating all along the many feet of intestine. Yum.
So I bought my stuff and went home to play in the kitchen, hoping to re-create a Better Homes & Gardens moment from the 1950s. While I borrowed a few tricks from my mother, who baked hot dogs or sausage into her mac and cheese casserole, what I ended up with was something a bit different.
This recipe still fulfilled all the requirements for comfort food, though. While it may be decades before I crave this again, I'll be ready when I do.
Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
16 ounces fusilli or shell pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup chopped red pepper
1 pound Velveeta, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt to taste
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
8 hot dogs
Boil the pasta until it is half-cooked. Drain and set aside in its pan.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In small skillet over low heat, brown the onion in olive oil. When it begins to become transparent, add the chopped pepper and continue to stir until the pepper is softened. Remove from heat.
Place the milk and Velveeta in the top of a double boiler and stir until the Velveeta has melted. Stir in the red pepper flakes as well as salt, if necessary.
Pour the cheese sauce into the pasta pan, add the onion and pepper, and combine.
Lay the hot dogs in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and evenly distribute the pasta mixture over them. Sprinkle the top with the shredded cheddar cheese.
Bake covered for 20 to 25 minutes, until the casserole bubbles at the edges. Uncover for 5 minutes to brown the cheese. Serves 8.