Jacques Kelly: Pass the cheese, please, and don't skimp on the Baltimore nostalgia

As a hungry child, I never paid much attention to the preparation involved for the macaroni and cheese that accompanied a Saturday night dinner. It simply appeared, in a square casserole dish, along with rib roast of beef, canned peas and baked potatoes. It was delicious.

What I do recall was the earlier quest for the bitingly sharp cheese, known in Baltimore grocery circles as black-rind cheese.

The shopping expedition would begin Saturday morning. My mother often visited a market, such as the Belair Market in Oldtown, in search of the sharp cheddar that gave the dish its tangy taste. The cheese was hand cut and sold by the wedge from big wheels coated with a waxy black rind.

The cheese, along with buckwheat flour and sausage for Sunday breakfast, went into a shopping bag for the trip home, where my mother dutifully handed it over to her mother — the master cook.

Just before my grandmother put the macaroni casserole dish in the oven, she grated the cheese on the top. It was good cheese. (If she sampled a nibble, I got one, too).

The macaroni had plenty of butter in it and the elbow noodles — we didn't know what pasta was in 1960 — emerged from the oven in a crunchy state. The dish stood by itself. It was unlike the mac and cheese we know today.

It disappeared from the family menu repertoire in 1971, when the last member of my grandmother’s generation died. Aunt Cora outlived her sister and knew all the recipes; the sisters had spent their lives together and their cooking was superb. They never labored over complicated recipes and made their work appear easy.

My mother was ready and willing to spend a Saturday finding the right cheese, but freely admitted that she was no cook.

The macaroni dish was popular with guests — they certainly never had it at their homes — and we had plenty of extras at the table.

A next door neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, lived in the apartment alongside our home. There was always a chair at the table for her if she wanted to drop by. Dorothy was the only non-family member who had a key to the house. She rarely used it, but instead would announce her arrival with a peal of the doorbell — three sharp rings.

Dorothy bonded with my grandmother. Both were early-morning people, and they chattered on while the rest of the household was just waking up. Dorothy took toast and coffee before she headed off to her desk at the city’s Department of Social Services; my grandmother worked on the dishes she’d finish later in the day.

Dorothy was curious and watchful, and she performed an unintentional miracle: One day, she took pen and paper and jotted notes as my grandmother made the macaroni and cheese. Years later, she transcribed her notes onto an index card — revealing the dish in all its simplicity.

The recipe is a revelation because, unlike other traditional mac and cheeses, there is no use of milk, bread crumbs or flour. It’s so straightforward you wonder how it could succeed.

There are only five ingredients — butter, and plenty of it, elbow macaroni, salt, pepper and grated cheese. Bake until the noodles become golden and crunchy on the top.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend after a good meal, talk around the table often turns to the foods, restaurants and bakeries that we took for granted in Baltimore. The meals at Maison Marconi or the ice cream and cakes from Fiske’s and Betty Patterson, or a Harley submarine sandwich.

As my family gathers, one of the things they are thankful for is the survival of grandmother’s recipe.

And they now ask: “You are making the macaroni, aren't you?”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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