Aptly calling the result “an acute case of culinary vandalism,” Sa. Hazan took the opportunity to remind us that cooking is a craft, and within that craft, a little creativity—like spice—goes a very long way and should never be allowed to take over and run amok.
“We should be spending our time as cooks,” she concluded, “in understanding, practicing, perfecting, and respecting a craft that is essential to our survival. We ought not to be distracted by trends, lured by fashion, obsessed by the pursuit of originality. These are not directly linked to the pleasure that well-crafted food brings.”
This came sharply home a day or two later, when I was putting together my contribution for a potluck party, a dish of baked pasta that was in my childhood simply called macaroni pie. Beneath its euphemistic name, when properly executed this Southern classic follows in the best tradition of Italian baked pasta: all it requires is good macaroni, the best cheese that can be had, and a little care with the craft.
The macaroni was good-quality Italian pasta, the cheese, a Vermont cheddar that, while it would have fallen far short of my grandfather’s standards, was still nothing to sneeze at. And there was a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand to make up for its minor shortcomings. Yet, suddenly, making it the usual way seemed unimpressively simple. Maybe if I added little cubes of browned bacon, with perhaps a couple of onions caramelized in the bacon fat, and some sage . . . or rosemary . . .
I got as far as opening the refrigerator door, but before my hand laid hold of the bacon, almost as if she had actually been there, watching and reading my thoughts, Marcella’s voice came sharply to my mind's ear: stop fooling around and just make it properly. Yes, ma’am.
The dish came back home scraped so clean that it barely needed washing.
In parts of the South, a simple egg and milk custard replaces the cream that’s used here (about 2-3 eggs, depending on size, for the same volume of milk). In other places, the binder is bechamel, just as it is in Italy. My grandfather’s version, following an old North Georgia tradition that had English roots, was plain milk, with saltine crackers distributed among the macaroni as a thickener.
But however they’re bound together, the critical ingredients here are pasta and cheese: at the risk of being tediously redundant, so long as those two things are first rate, they don’t need help, and if they aren’t good, or if you’re a bit careless with the execution, the dish doesn’t have a prayer no matter what you add—and that’s all there is to it.
1 pound elbow macaroni
3 cups heavy cream
12 ounces (¾ pound) well-aged extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
½ cup (about 2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, toss in a small handful of salt, stir, and then slowly add the macaroni, stirring. Let it come back to a boil, adjust the temperature to a steady but not rapid boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile, butter a 2-to-3-quart casserole. Just before draining the pasta, take up and reserve about a quarter of a cup of the starchy cooking liquid.
2. Drain the pasta and turn it into the casserole. Add a few spoonfuls of the reserved cooking liquid (just enough to make it seem glossy and moist—you may not need it all), the cream, and toss until the pasta is coated. Add most of the cheddar, holding back about half a cup, half the Parmigiano, and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. Quickly toss until the cheese is evenly distributed. Smooth the top and sprinkle the remaining cheeses over it. Generously grind pepper over it and bake in the center of the oven until bubbly in the middle and golden brown. Let rest 5-10 minutes before serving.