Thanksgiving Heart Attack in a Pan

I don’t know if it’s just in New Orleans, or just in my family, but macaroni and cheese (it’s actually more cheese than macaroni) is always a staple for holiday dinners in our family.

Here’s my (sort-of) recipe for one of my family’s Thanksgiving Day staples:

Personally, I’m not a pasta and cheese sauce kind of mac person.  Jan’s mac is made like my mama made hers: with large-size elbow macaroni, lots of eggs, massive amounts of shredded cheese (cheddar, sharp and mild), canned evaporated milk, salt and pepper, real butter and a dash of nutmeg. A heart attack on a plate. It’s quite a simple recipe, but like a lot of home cooks, I don’t measure anything; I’ve just been making it for so long and in such quantities that I just know how much it takes to make it good.

NO white sauce (yuck), no Velveeta or processed cheese (double yuck). Real cheese only. No breadcrumbs or other crap on top. Just a nice thick golden chewy layer of real cheese.

We never have mac and cheese anytime other than for holiday dinners, and rarely at any other time, so it’s really sort of a special treat. I usually bake it in one of those big aluminum foil pans that you cook a turkey in, and depending on the size of the group (remember, it’s family time, and I have seven siblings who all have families), the pan might get bigger or smaller.

So here goes:

  1. For a big pan of mac, you are going to need three to four pounds of shredded cheese, depending on how cheesy you want to make it. Shred it yourself (not me, baby) or buy it shredded. You are going to need about two-thirds mild cheddar, one third sharp cheddar;  I also like to throw in some Colby. Please no Mexican flavor, Havarti or swiss or Gouda or even Parmigiano-Reggiano. God forbid process cheese. NO Velveeta or cheese sauce!).
  2. Take your aluminum pan, and spray it well with a non-stick spray, preferably butter flavor.  If you want to go all out, then grease the pan with butter. I think the spray works much better, actually. You want the pan to be slick enough so the cheese and eggs don’t stick, and that way you can slide out big portions cleanly, and they’ll have a nice crusty bottom, which is what you want.
  3. For a big pan, you’ll need about a 10-12 large eggs. Break them into a big bowl, preferably one with a spout (I like to use a big Pyrex measuring bowl that pours), and whisk them together like you’re scrambling eggs. Add salt and pepper to taste. I like white pepper, but black works okay too. While you’re at it, sprinkle in a little nutmeg; not too much or your mac will taste like eggnog. You just want enough to give a hint of flavor.
  4. Cook macaroni a little bit less than al dente (it will cook further when you bake it in the egg custard).  I use a two-pound bad for a big crowd. Salt the water. I also put in a little olive oil, so it doesn’t stick. Big elbow macaroni is ideal; little elbows don’t work; they turn to mush. Have used penne,  bucatini, and even farfalle (bowties), but big elbows are my preference. You can cook the mac while you’re beating up the eggs.
  5. Take one-and-a-half to two sticks of salted butter and slice them up in tablespoons to have ready to mix into the hot pasta.
  6. After beating the eggs, pour in at least three cans of evaporated milk into the eggs and seasonings and mix well (this is why you need a big ole bowl). Mix well.
  7. When the mac is cooked, drain it and pour while it’s hot into your prepared pan.
  8. Throw in all that butter into the hot pasta and mix it up.
  9. Start mixing in all the cheese into the pasta. Save enough to cover the top of the pan completely. You want a nice melted cheese top on the mac.
  10. Once you stir in all the cheese (well!), then pour the custard mixture over all and stir well so it’s completely mixed with the pasta. The custard should just barely cover the pasta. Don’t put in too much or it will be way too creamy (not horrible, just not to my taste).
  11. Cover the top of the entire mess with shredded cheese. Try to cover completely so you hae a nice thick blanket of cheese over the top and “seal it” to the sides.
  12. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes to an hour. Peel back the foil to check the progress about 40 minutes in. Stick a knife in the middle of the pan to see if it comes out clean (sort of like baking a custard pie). When it’s clean, take that baby out of the oven (sometimes I take it out a couple minutes early and let it sit as the residual heat will cook the custard the the right consistency. The cheese on top should be lightly browned,  and the custard/cheesy macs should be slightly pulling away from the sides of the pan.
  13. Don’t overcook, or the custard will be dry and the pasta will be overcooked. If you undercook, it’ll be too creamy, but if you like it that way, go for it.
  14. Once it’s done to your liking, let it sit for a little bit, like a nice foil-wrapped package of cheesy heart attack fodder, and serve to the 20 people or so this amount will serve.

Happy Thanksgiving!