Monday, March 30, 2015

"Cookbook for Fridays and Lent" - Macaroni and Cheese

Date I made this recipe:  Friday, March 27, 2015

Cookbook for Fridays and Lent by Irma Rhode; introduction by Robert I. Gannon, S.J. (Society of St. Joseph) (Irma Rhode often collaborated with James Beard)
Published by:  David McKay Company, Inc.
© 1951
Purchased at Bonnie Slotnick's Cookbooks, NYC
Recipe:  Macaroni and Cheese – p. 128

"To eat meat, or not to eat meat on Fridays?"  That was the question pondered by my mother pretty much my entire (Catholic) childhood.

The blame for this confusion and consternation can be directly deposited on the doors of the Vatican which, during the early 60's, instituted what became known as "Vatican II."  During Vatican II, the church loosened up on many age-old rules to allow for a more progressive church.  Or at least that's the story I'm going with.  I was too young to know or care about the inner politics.  What I did know is that in an instant, we went from Latin masses to guitar masses, the nun's habit went from near-mummy to "what the heck" polyester pants suits and all hell broke loose.

Also caught in the Papal crossfire was whether or not we could/could not eat meat on Fridays during Lent.  And around Christmas.  Pre-Vatican II, this was not an issue.  "No Meat," period.  But after Vatican II, all bets were off and some years we were allowed, some years we weren't.  Frankly, I loved the years we "weren't."

Translated, the "no meat" rule basically meant you ate "fish" but you see, despite the abundance of Lake Superior whitefish which I'm told is the "poor man's lobster" (Uh huh. Right), fish in our house constituted smelt (ugh), perch (double ugh) or canned salmon or mackerel.  Every once in a while, my parents got some other fish to serve us but I just don't like fish.  And I cannot think of one time we actually had whitefish while I was growing up; I think my parents got into that grove after I left home.  If they hadn't things might have been different.

Now what I did like, and really, how could you not, were fish sticks.  Fish sticks were a treat.  Fish sticks were acceptable.  Well, acceptable if you slathered them in tartar sauce.  Also acceptable?  Ketchup.  Anything to mask the taste and texture was fine by me. 

I also liked shrimp burgers which were served in the cafeteria when I was in junior high and high school.  But then again, shrimp are shellfish and I love shellfish.  It's just "fish" fish that I don't love.

So you can see where the "no meat edict" frustrated.  And the church didn't help by suggesting that fish should be the Friday night dinner selection of choice.  No mention was made of non-fish items which suggests to me that the church had some sort of world-wide agreement with fish mongers everywhere.  (Sorry about that, egg people).  And so my mother, ever the good Catholic, took whatever the church said as Gospel (pun intended) and if they said no meat, we had their suggested fish instead.

Like any good daughter (ha!) I played along with the rules until I got to college.  I don't think  I'm alone is using a few choice words for the "food" served to college students.  Given that it was a public university, they didn't have to cater to a Catholic population when it came to food service and so they didn't.  (Never mind that St. Michael's Catholic Church was a half a block away).  And what they served as fish was disgusting, such that I couldn't eat it at all.  So I cheated and ate meat or whatever else they offered that was not fish.

And things were going splendidly until my mother inquired as to my Friday night fare and well, as I was sometimes wont to do, I told a small, teeny tiny fib.  I told her that the cafeteria didn't serve fish (heathens!) and so what was I supposed to do?

You would think at that age (i.e. college-age), I would have figured out that lying to my mother resulted in nothing but hardship to me.  This was not my first rodeo with a small whopper.  No sir!   In fact, I still find it absolutely hilarious that as a second-grader making our First Confession (done before your First Communion), my entire class of thirty odd kids and I told the same, whopping lie to Father Beyer when we got into the confessional:  "Bless me Father, for I have sinned.  I stole a little red wagon."  Yup.  At that age, we were still puzzled as to what constituted a sin and therefore, what to report to Father until a classmate said "I'm going to say I stole a little red wagon," and we thought that was genius so we said it too.  I can only imagine what Father Beyer thought as he heard the same story over and over but my guess is by confessor #25, he was probably thinking "Yeah, yeah...what else ya got?"

Anyway.  Like I said, this was not my first rodeo and my mother was probably on to me so she made me talk to the parish priest at St. Michael's and tell him my story.  I was to ask for "special dispensation" which is code for "Here's your hall pass for SIN, my child.  Go ahead and eat meat."  "SD" was granted.  I mean, just like that, my story passed muster.  What?  And so for the rest of my college life, I ate whatever the heck I wanted on Lenten Fridays.  Oh, the thrill of getting away with the crime!

It is amazing, isn't it that later in life, I went to law school? ;)

These days, I'm pretty much surprised every year when Lent begins and Easter rolls around ("It's Easter on Sunday?  Really?") and therefore don't pay much attention to the meat/no meat rule or at least I didn't until I saw this cookbook last year at Bonnie Slotnick's cookbook bookstore in NYC.  And what I want to know is WHERE was this primer when I was growing up?  Because my mother could have just locked and loaded on the non-fish chapters and we would have been home free:  no muss, no fuss, no worry!  Instead, there was angst.  Lots and lots of needless angst.

Pretty much true to form, this book features fish dishes first (sigh), then shellfish, veggies, eggs, cheese, rice, noodles, etc.  I definitely passed on:  "Fried Smelts," "Baked Smelts," creamed fish of any kind and – Lord, give me strength – "Fish Casserole with Sauerkraut" on p. 59.  You should not have to work too hard to imagine the look on my face when I saw that.  Way to go an ruin a good sauerkraut...

I fared much better with the egg dishes as there were lots of recipes for cheese "puddings" and soufflés and pies, but I really hit my stride with the "Rice, Noodle and Macaroni Dishes" chapter starting on p. 121.  It's a short chapter but that didn't matter because I found what I wanted – "Macaroni and Cheese" (p. 128).

For the record, we never had macaroni and cheese at our house when I was growing up.  Actually, let me amend that:  we sometimes had Kraft Macaroni and Cheese but only if "something" was added to it like hamburger or tomatoes or something.  I just don't recall a time when we sat down and had it out of the box.  And I can also tell you that I do not think my mother ever made it from scratch which is just a sin, right?  Because this dish is so good and so easy and it beats the heck out of fish any day.  But my mother's side of the family had high cholesterol and so cheese and butter were bad things and fish was good.  Whatever.  I'm not buying it.

At first blush, you might think this dish is a little too rich what with milk, cream, egg yolks and cheese but it isn't.  And the only seasoning is salt and pepper.  So really, you'd be hard pressed to screw this up and I did not screw this up and although it says "serves six," the two of us pretty much demolished the thing.  And I will not go to confession to tell a priest this, I will not, no matter what the Bible says about Gluttony!

By the way, in a case of incredible timing, the biggest business news this week is that Heinz, best known for its ketchup, and Kraft, best known for its boxed macaroni and cheese, are merging.  Just so we're clear:  many recipes for mac and cheese call for the addition of mustard and that is okay.  But in no way, shape or form, should ketchup ever eaten with mac and cheese.  Ever.  Not even by accident by sitting too close together on a plate alongside (my) ketchup-laden fish sticks.  There are rules, kids.  Food rules.  Don't break them, especially during Lent. 

Enjoy this delicious macaroni and cheese.

Macaroni and Cheese – serves six
8 oz elbow macaroni
4 quarts water
1 cup cream
1 cup milk
4 egg yolks, beaten
½ lb. cheese (Cheddar preferred), broken into small pieces or coarsely grated
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
½ cup bread crumbs

Cook macaroni in the boiling salted water for about 5 minutes, then drain.  The macaroni should be underdone.  Pile macaroni loosely in a baking dish.  Combine cream, milk, and egg yolks and blend well; add cheese and seasonings and pour the whole over the macaroni.  Stir lightly with a fork to distribute liquid evenly.  Sprinkle top with bread crumbs and bake in a moderate oven (350F) for 30 to 35 minutes.

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