(by Sandra Bilu)
Macaroni and cheese is like adhesive for my family. I learned the initial recipe from my Aunt Henrietta, who had both an oven and a stovetop version. I would sit in the alcove of her small, old-fashioned kitchen in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and savor the flavor of every elbow noodle on my plate. If she knew in advance that I'd be visiting, the plate was on the table awaiting my arrival.
When I was a young woman with my first daughter, Gabriela, a lady named Mrs. Brooks, who used to babysit, taught me an even tastier version. I remember writing the recipe under her contact information in my telephone book as we talked. That became my go-to recipe, improved over time with additional ingredients, the most important of which is a ton of love. Love as an ingredient can totally change the flavor of food.
Each of my daughters now knows the mac and cheese recipe. Gabriela became interested when her boyfriend fell in love with it. She recently went to a party that his family hosted and reported that “they didn’t have any mac and cheese.” (She seemed somehow offended by the omission.) My middle daughter, Ilana, puts her own spin on the recipe by adding bread crumbs. Even my youngest, Talia, has spent hours in the kitchen participating in the creation of this dish. One person apportions the cheese; another readies the butter and milk; another boils the elbow macaroni. As we are all musically inclined, we’re often talking about the latest musical artists. My daughters put on the music being discussed, and we dance. Some of the lyrics these days are vulgar, and I try my best to view the music as “art.” We have conversations about who might be offended and why, about how the beat pulls us in before we really hear the lyrics. We play music from the past and note how the changes reflect the changes in our collective culture. We discuss issues such as what is a good age to date, where sex fits into a woman’s life, and the many ways in which it can affect one’s decisions and progress. We’ve discussed parenthood and how easy or difficult it really is. We’ve discussed, and in some instances solved, conflicts among us. Each of us is very different from the other. But our differences end with mac and cheese.
Each of my daughters would describe me differently: The oldest would say that I’ve shown her how to maneuver in the world, and I notice her doing many things exactly as I showed her. She listened well.
My more adventurous middle daughter believes that I am far too energetic to be a “proper” mom—in other words, too much like herself, and not the kind of mom she more often saw while growing up in Moorestown, New Jersey, where a lot of mothers stay at home. I am a business owner with a real estate company that has weathered the ups and downs of the housing market for 18 years.
My youngest daughter feels that we only have “real family time” in the kitchen, which mostly occurs nowadays on vacations. Each of my daughters has witnessed a different stage of my life, from a mother who was home every evening to cook dinner and help with lessons, to a mother who worked a lot but still locally, to the mother of today whose desire to get out of a precarious financial condition led to workaholic status, much of it in other states.
In an attempt to compensate, I’ve made an effort to bond with my daughters by spending one-on-one time with each of them whenever possible—shared trips, dining and shopping together, and gathering as a family as often as we can over magical mac and cheese. Being an avid traveler who has visited over 40 countries, I have passed along my knowledge of the world to my children, and we have a house of ambassadors for cross-cultural understanding. I taught them early in life not to fear those we perceive as different from ourselves. I prepared, and taught my daughters how to prepare, Jamaican curries, chicken in a Thai peanut sauce, rice and peas in Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Cuban styles. We’ve danced meringue and bachata; they’ve had Matryoshka Russian nesting dolls. The list goes on, and they/we love it all.
Whenever I introduce people from other cultures to my mac and cheese, they almost always incorporate it into their own family traditions. Who knows—perhaps mac and cheese could unite the world.
Sandra Bilou owns a real-estate company in New Jersey.
Mac and Cheese
2 lb. elbow macaroni 2 eggs, beaten
1 T. Adobo Seasoning 1 T. black pepper
1 lb. sharp cheddar cheese 1 lb. extra sharp cheddar cheese 1/4 lb. unsalted butter, melted 1 qt. 1% or 2% milk paprika
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bring a large pot of water to boil, and cook macaroni about 5 minutes.
Drain noodles and place in an ovenproof casserole, approximately 9 x 13 x 3 inches.
Mix in beaten eggs, Adobo seasoning, black pepper, cheese, and butter,
Pour in milk until it reaches about 1⁄2 inch below top of the noodle mixture.
(Do not cover the noodles with the milk.)
Sprinkle with paprika.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes.
Remove foil and broil for 5 minutes to brown the top.