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"One startled flinch in preparation could have ruined the whole enterprise."

Back in Jesus' time, when the odd multitude showed up for supper, loaves and fishes were the popular response. Bordering The Sea of Galilee, fishes were common as pebbles then, and once you get started making pita loaves, you can't hardly stop, reliably producing dozens more than intended every time, so loaves were always in surplus, too. Another positive aspect of this menu was the Wow! factor, as one could plate it almost as if by magic. Everyone at table couldn't help but feel as though they'd been especially blessed and had witnessed a miracle of sorts. In those days before the invention of Miracle Whip®, a host, even the host of hosts, could not rely upon store bought to beatify any guest.

These days, mac and cheese fills the multitude menu slot. Macaroni drenched in a cheese sauce comes about as close to fully fungible as one can get without a handy Galilee and a neighborhood of over-achieving bakers.
A properly concocted pan of the old M&C can feed a dozen or two, depending, even more should the wine flow favorably. The stuff scales marvelously. I can almost as easily make two batches as one and three as two. It's essentially done when sauce hits pasta, though a brief baking brings everything together. One need not be overly picky about the baking, any temperature capable of browning the top into a serviceable crust will do. Some insist upon smothering the top with crumbs infused with butter, and while I prefer the look this approach yields, it's completely optional. One can finally use in the sauce all those odd bits of cheese drying out in the back of the refrigerator's cheese compartment. Nobody need know or care that what looks like a respectable cheddar sauce holds a bit of last Christmas' moldy Stilton. It's the good, eatable sort of mold, anyway.

It's possible, though hardly recommended, to concoct a sort of mac and cheese without ever resorting to anything as base as actually cutting cheese. Industry produces emulations which fussy five year olds actually prefer over the genuine article. Premium versions of these are sold under the brand name Krap® and are widely available in inconvenience stores and in major groceries, typically displayed in that aisle you never walk down. These come in something approaching a single-serving size, which utterly subverts the true purpose of mac and cheese, the feeding of uncountable multitudes, but for fussy five year olds or otherwise inept undergrads, these industrial analogues of the genuine article might successfully mollify. Everyone else is well advised to steer well clear of the tiny rectangular blue box.

My mac and cheese has been well reviewed by multitudes from coast to coast. I violate almost every tenet of Old Testament mac and cheese, the kind that actually employs elbow macaronni. I use cavatappi, a hollow corkscrew-shaped pasta with more presence than the humble elbow. Its hollow better holds sauce and its denseness yields better chew. It's also just a tad unusual, and odd adds something to the final presentation which seems to elevate even a justifiably humble cook like myself in the eyes of those assembled. I still call it mac and cheese, and not only because nobody would understand what they'd encountered if I announced "Cavatappi and Cheese is served." As Krap® Foods discovered, one can credibly call anything mac and cheese, even a small rectangular blue box, so I stick with the familiar name.

The sauce is key. I use well-aged white cheddar as my base, concocting a simple Sauce Veloute, ignoring most of the details James Beard provided. Today, I'm making a vegetarian mac and cheese, with special permission provided by the vegetarians to employ rennet cheese. (These days, loaves and fishes would not pass muster with most multitudes unless a vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and paleo alternative were also provided.) My sauce will be about half stock, homemade veg stock I made by cleaning out all the odd frozen veg trimmings from my freezer and adding some blackened ginger, limes, and onions to the cold water-filled stock pot. This blackening step mirrors what Vietnamese cooks do when concocting pho stock, and it adds great depth to what might prove to be a rather thin broth without the usual animal bones gooeying off their collagen. I just set the huge pot in a very slow oven overnight and next morning, more than half of the original water's evaporated off, the top veg turned deep brown and crispy, and the juice could credible pass for a rich beef stock.

I replace about half of the recipe's milk with stock to produce a more velvety result. The subtle flavors from the stock also influence the final taste, but without convincingly subverting what the cheese tries to impart. It seems just like a cheese sauce except subtly different. People, especially multitudes, never expect subtle differences when tucking into a plate of familiar old anything, and most won't notice. Those possessing something other than the lead palates Krap® Foods relies upon might catch the difference, and these are the individuals within the multitude I was cooking for in the first place. I could feed those with lead palates aluminum foil and they wouldn't notice the difference. I think of my mac and cheese as a stealth contribution to any feast.

With good fortune, even with a massive multitude, there will be leftovers. Unlike loaves and fishes, which frankly stink well before the traditional three days, leftover mac and cheese keeps indefinitely when refrigerated, even longer when frozen, and it chills and freezes extremely well. Reheated, the sauce has become thicker and richer and seems to beg for a decent squirt of Sriracha. It won't even mind microwaving, which might be its only similarity to its distant third cousin industrial little blue box variety. Ultimately, the fullest satisfaction from feeding multitudes comes from feeding leftovers to that final multitude of one, who understands better than anyone how risky the original undertaking had been. One startled flinch in preparation could have ruined the whole enterprise. Ultimately, even a stately old mac and cheese utterly relies upon a miracle occurring.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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