In the Kitchen by My Grandmother’s Side
(with recipe) by Scott Wilson
Now, grandmothers seem to always have a “pet” name, Me-maw, Nana, Grams, GG, or in my case Big Mama and Ma-ma. For people of a “certain age”, she conjures up visions of a smartly dressed older woman, standing in the kitchen with an apron tied around her waist and standing in short heels around the kitchen counter and stove.
Recently I was asked, “What is your earliest childhood memory in relation to cooking?” I did not have to think very long as I vividly remember watching my maternal grandmother making her macaroni and cheese to go along with one of her great meatloaf dinners.
The making of a home-cooked meal can have extraordinary powers and the aromas coming from those dishes can elicit some strong memories. A trip to my Big Mama’s house was always a treat. It meant playing outside and roaming in the woods in the back of the house or sneaking into my grandfather’s wood shed and making something from the discarded pieces of wood just sitting there for the taking among the piles of damp sawdust. But my favorite memory was getting to watch and help my grandmother cook dinner.
Big Mama was one of those “salt of the earth” ladies. She would often speak her mind without regard to the consequences but, everyone knew where she stood on any issue. Not only was she a homemaker, she was also a school bus driver and a cafeteria lady for the county school. Yeah, we ate “good” in middle school.
Okay, back to the macaroni and cheese. I was around 10 and what I remember is that the counters in the kitchen were too high and I could just barely see what she was doing. I went to the back room and found an old wooden “Coke” box that put me just at the right height to the counter.
This way, I “could be her little helper” as she would often say. So there we would be standing side by side. She in a simple linen dress with one of her homemade aprons and me with on of those frilly aprons wrapped around me a couple of times (I was a skinny kid). All of the ingredients would be laid out on the counter, along with all matter of crocks filled with utensils, flour, sugar and other items needed at a moments notice. What I do remember about this dish was how easy it was to make, the velvety texture and how great it was with the meatloaf. She would mix everything up in a large milky glass mixing bowl then turn the mixture into an old blue enameled baking dish that had seen better days. She said that the dish gave it just the right crusty edges. When it came out of the oven and onto the table, it would be paired with a bowl of slow simmered green beans, some cooked cabbage, the meat loaf and a big old skillet of corn bread. What’s not to like?
This is one of those classic comfort foods that should be enjoyed occasionally. The recipe is great as is or with any number of variations. Sometimes I add chopped tomatoes, diced ham along with some sautéed peppers and onions or fold in some chopped tomatoes, creamed spinach, oregano and top with feta cheese for a little Greek flair.
Big Mama’s Mac and Cheese
Makes 6-8 servings as a side
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups large elbow macaroni
3/4 pound red wax hoop cheese, divided (see note)
5 ounces evaporated milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
Rub the inside of a 9x13x2-inch casserole or 2-quart round baking dish lightly with the butter.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the macaroni according to package directions (be sure to salt the water), drain well and place in a large bowl. Add the remaining butter and toss well.
While the macaroni is cooking, use a hand grater and grate the cheese onto a sheet of waxed paper.
To the bowl of macaroni, add about 1/2 pound of the grated cheese, evaporated milk, and the beaten egg. Stir to combine and the cheese is partial melted. Spoon the macaroni and cheese into the casserole and top with the remaining cheese.
Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is all melted.
This may be served as a side or as an entrée.
A Note about Hoop Cheese:
Hoop Cheese is a simple, traditional cheese made only from milk, where the whey has been drained out completely and then placed in a round mold called a hoop. Some people call it hoop cheese, rat cheese or red wax cheese because of the red wax coating, but not to be confused with Gouda. Often compared to farmer's cheese, it is slightly different because no cream or salt is added to the cheese. Since the cheese is not aged, the flavor is fairly mild and the texture remains soft and it spoils very fast.
It is usually made in small batches and found, in the rural south, in “mom and pop” grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. Sold cut off the hoop, at times by using a medieval looking contraption (see picture) made just for this cheese.
Hoop cheese is a mild, slightly salty cheese with a spongy texture when young which becomes sharp and crumbly if allowed to age. Its color is a rich yellow to bright orange with a slight nutty flavor. It is prized as a cooking ingredient because it will give a creamy texture to the dish without changing the flavor or making it stringy or stickier. Great for use to make macaroni and cheese, grilled sandwiches, or have it with saltine crackers or some fruits.
© Kitchen Towel Productions Reprinted with permission by the author.