Over the years I’ve eaten a lot of macaroni and cheese, from homemade to the neon orange version from a box off the grocery store shelf (lots of that orange stuff during my single life, budget-crunching days, actually). As far back as I can remember I loved macaroni and cheese and still do.
I’ve had some really great macaroni and cheese — like the baked mac and cheese with ham I had decades ago from the hot bar section at a convenience store in Lancaster, New Hampshire. On our way to the cabin at First Connecticut Lake in Pittsburg, NH where James and I were to be married, a stop for gas led me to a bowl of macaroni and cheese made with white Vermont cheddar studded with bite-sized pieces of smoked ham. James and I returned to Pittsburg for several years after that to vacation and to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Each trip, we would stop at that convenience store, but were never again lucky enough to be there on the day they served that luscious macaroni and cheese with ham.
My good friend, Denise, in Wilmot, New Hampshire makes a killer mac and cheese. She is known far and wide for it. For me, it was at the top of my favorites list — I am not alone — her mac and cheese is in high demand throughout that area and often makes an appearance at banquets, holiday parties, birthday and anniversary celebrations.
And then there’s been the bad, like the highly touted “famous mac and cheese” from a quaint pub in Lebanon, NH that turned out to be so dry and flavorless, I sent it back to the kitchen and ordered something else. This is a clue as to just how bad it was because I can muddle through most mac and cheese, even if it means employing the Coal Region /Dutchie trick of dousing it with ketchup (in the US South, the “holy trinity” is onion, celery, and bell pepper — in the Coal Region and PA Dutch country it’s salt, black pepper, and ketchup which a lot of us believe improves everything…).
But sometimes in life, the simplest version of something not only captures your taste buds but finds a way into your heart where it occupies a special place forever. Such is the case with “Peg’s Baked Macaroni and Cheese”.
My friendship with Peg was one of those decades-long friendships that seemed like it was always there; the kind where you immediately feel like you have known someone forever and you barely remember life before they came into it. Peg helped me heal — and survive — after losing my Mom and Dad within 6 months of each other. Peg became my best friend, “big sister” and “second Mom”. We shared a bond the kind of which not everyone gets a chance to experience in life.
So, when the day came on January 7, 2001 to say the dreaded “goodbyes” as my husband and I prepared to leave the Coal Region for a move to New Hampshire, my heart was breaking. Sure, there would always be phone calls, but in the days before Facetime and Twitter, the opportunity to see Peg again was a long way off. Given the twists and turns of life, I harbored a deep fear I might never get to see her again.
Finally, in 2007, my husband, James, landed a stint with a company that was based on working from his office at home which brought the constant travel to a halt. Although he still traveled, the schedule was much more flexible and he was sometimes home for weeks between trips. James had gifted me with a beautiful Mustang a couple years earlier and I was itching for a road trip back home to see Peg in Ashland, PA.
I loaded up the trunk of my car and headed for the Interstate. Tired and weary after an almost eight hour drive, my first phone call when I reached the hotel was not to James but to Peg. We made plans for me to come to her house for lunch the next day.
To be honest, when I arrived at the house, I was so happy to see my friend, the tears started and would not stop. Yet all these years later, I can close my eyes and remember every detail — what the weather was like that Spring day, what we both were wearing, and exactly what we had for lunch — macaroni and cheese, stewed tomatoes, and Peg’s 2-2-2-2-6 Pound Cake with strawberries and whipped cream.
To this day, that was some of the best mac and cheese I ever had. No frills, no fuss, no exotic mix of cheeses, no off-the-wall additions; just a simple macaroni and cheese casserole with basic ingredients. It was the one who made it for me that made all the difference and made it so special. Before I left that day to return to the hotel, I asked Peg for her recipe. When In saw her the following day, she handed it to me, hand-written on a lined piece of notebook paper. Almost a decade and a half later I still have that piece of paper. Like with my Mom and Nana, seeing a loved one’s handwriting comforts me, like it is a part of them that I can still hold in my hands.
Peg left this world early March 2013. i was blessed to be by her side. My heart still aches over her loss, but when I am down or need to feel her again, i go to my recipe collection, pull out the spotted, handwritten paper with this recipe in her handwriting, gather up a few simple ingredients, make a batch of Peg’s macaroni and cheese and get lost in the memories.
“Each happiness of yesterday is a memory for tomorrow.”Unknown
The only thing a bit out of the ordinary with this recipe is that there are two sauces made separately then get mixed together with the cooked macaroni when assembling the dish. When Peg first gave me the recipe I didn’t realize that that’s how the instructions were written. Making this mac and cheese myself for the first time, I made a mental note to ask Peg about the sauces. I never did get around to it. Now, I’m so used to making it is written, it just doesn’t matter anymore.
Peg’s Baked Macaroni and CheeseCourse: Entree, SidesCuisine: GeneralDifficulty: Intermediate
8 ounces elbow macaroni, cooked al dente and drained
- Cheese Sauce #1
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese, divided (Peg always used Kraft Cracker Barrel brand)
- White Cheese Sauce
2 Tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
4 ounces white American deli-sliced cheese, cut into small cubes
- Cheese Sauce #1
- In medium saucepan combine cornstarch, salt, dry mustard and pepper. Stir in milk. Add butter. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in 1 and 3/4 cups cheddar cheese until melted. Reserve 1/4 cup of cheese to sprinkle over top of casserole. Set aside.
- Cheese Sauce #2
- Make second cheesed sauce by melting 2 Tablespoons butter in a small saucepan. Add the 1 Tablespoon flour, whisk and cook for 30 seconds. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup whole milk. Cook on medium-high until it bubbles. Remove from heat and stir in 4 ounces of white American cheese, whisking until smooth and melted.
- Add both sauces to cooked macaroni and stir thoroughly. Pour into buttered 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle top with remaining 1/4 cup white sharp cheddar. Bake at 375 degrees F for 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not over-bake.