Wednesday March 20, 2013 | 01:00 AM

If any one dish in the repertoire of American cookery defines comfort food, it’s baked macaroni and cheese. All those gussied up versions that restaurants serve laden with exotic cheeses and serious bits of lobster and truffles are certainly nice but have nothing to do with the real American deal--a sumptuously rich, crusty bold dish of baked elbow macaroni with lots of cheesy goodness.

A rich and crusty version of macaroni and cheese

The hallmark of mac and cheese is its crust.  To achieve that it should be cooked in a glass baking dish like Pyrex or Anchor Hocking because it promotes the heat better and more uniformly and allows not only the top to get crusty but the sides as well. 

There’s a divide, however, between northern and southern cooks concerning the proper way to prepare it.  Northerners like to coat the macaroni with a cheese sauce whereas southerners engulf the noodles in a rich custard base.

Other nuances of flavor and texture occur from the type of cheese and other additions that go into the casserole.  One of the best around is from the St. Louis soul food haunt called Sweeties Pies, owned by Robbie Montgomery who makes up a  big ,bad batch using just about everything like butter, milk, eggs,  Colby, Monterey Jack, Cheddar and Velveeta cheeses plus sour cream and a bit of sugar.  It’s a whopper. 

A more delicate version but still assertive is the one devised by Edna Lewis, the renowned southern-born chef.  I’ve included both here.  Once you try these you may never resort to all those wannabe mac and cheese dishes again.

Sweetie Pies at the Grove Macaroni and Cheese
(Adapted from Robbie Montgomery)

Sweetie Pies mac and cheese

Servings: 4 to 6

 8 ounces elbow macaroni
½ cup milk
12-ounce can evaporated milk (or light cream)
2 medium size eggs
½ cup butter, cut into small pieces
4 ounces Colby cheese, grated
4 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
½ pound Velveeta cheese, cut into small cubes
¼ cup sour cream
Salt, to taste
Ground pepper to taste
2 teaspoons sugar
½ cup grated mild cheddar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.   

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to the boil and add the macaroni and cook according to package directions, or about 8 minutes until al dente. 

Drain and transfer to an 8-inch square glass baking dish that’s been lightly greased with butter.

In a large bowl combine the milks, eggs and beat until blended.  Add the butter, Colby, Monterey Jack, sharp Cheddar, Velveeta and sour cream.    Pour this over the pasta, mixing it lightly to combine.  Season with salt, pepper, and sugar and stir in the casserole to combine.  Sprinkle the top with the remaining Cheddar cheese.  Bake 30 to 45 minutes or until the top is lightly golden brown.  Note: double the recipe and put into a 9 by 13 inch glass casserole. And if you want more cheese for the topping by all means add it!

Macaroni and Cheese Adapted from Edna Lewis, “The Gift of Southern Cooking”

The mac and cheese adapted from Edna Lewis recipe

Servings: 4 to 6

4 ounces (l cup) elbow macaroni
2 ½ ounces extra sharp Cheddar cheese, cut into ½ inch cubes
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch grated nutmeg
¾ teaspoon dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Small grated onion
1/3 cup sour cream
1 egg, lightly beaten
¾ cup half and half or light cream
¾ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 ounces, or more, grated extra sharp Cheddar cheese.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cook the macaroni in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender.  Drain and put into a well buttered 8-inch square glass baking dish.  With a fork, mix in the cubed cheese.

The cubed cheese do not have to be cut up into uniform sized pieces

In a large bowl whisk the flour, salt, dry mustard, black pepper, cayenne and nutmeg until well blended.  Whisk in the eggs and sour cream, stirring to blend.  Whisk in the onion, half and half, heavy cream and Worcestershire sauce. 

Pour the custard over the macaroni and stir to blend.  Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and bake in the oven until the custard is set around the edges of the baking dish.  For a browner top continue to bake for about 5 minutes with your oven set at 350 degrees convection or 375 degrees conventional.  Watch carefully so as not to over bake or the custard could separate. 

The custard is mixed into the macaroni in the baking dish and a final layer of grated cheese is added.  Bake for 30 minutes or until set around the edges or increase the temperature (see recipe) and bake for an additional 5 minutes at a higher temperature until nice crisp and brown on top

Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes to allow the custard to set and thicken before serving.

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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