The Random Italian Thing or Mac and Cheese for All

We're getting ready to celebrate my mom, Luza's 100th birthday in another week. And of course, as we're trying to put this thing together, we've tried to include her in as many decisions as possible.

Luza invitations

She doesn't care much about the decorations, she says. She trusts us with those, as long as they are bright, not just one color, but all the spring colors, but no red and absolutely no black. Oh, and flowers. Lots of flowers. (So much for the trusting us part... but that's not important right now.)

There are two other things that she has a very strong opinion about.

1) Send an invitation to every single person in her address book. This was a no-brainer and obvious to us, of course. The interesting part is that the names in her address book ranged from her first neighbor in Miami back when we first arrived in the U.S. back in 1961 to her old ESL classmates from the 70's. *shaking my head*

2) When we asked if she had a preference for the food we'd be serving, she said, "Yes, I want it to be Italian."

This second feature comes up randomly and at the most bizarre moments. Of course, there's a back story...

The Random Italian Thing

When she was growing up in the Cuban port town of Manatí (read some of that story here), the big cargo ships would come in to load Cuban's main export, which was sugar and they would unload whatever import happened to be coming from Italy (of all places). It was the Italians that captured her imagination. They were from a far away place called, Napoli, and they sang songs, like "Oh, Marie," and talked in accents and fascinated the residents of Manatí, particularly the children.

Apparently the entire family was enthralled with the Italian Thing. My grandmother, Osmunda (as my mom tells the story) learned to cook the most amazing macaroni. And every now and then, as happens to all of us, the craving for the food that her mom cooked overwhelms her.

So, the menu for the party is Italian with a Cuban spin.

In honor of that, I'd love to share this recipe for the most delicious Mac and Cheese. It's pretty simple and in fact, I did a test run the day of the Super Bowl Big Game and it was a hit with everyone. My grandmother, Osmunda's secret was to use chicken broth to cook the pasta and then make it in a flat pan so that every bite has cheese and crunch. I promise you will love.

In honor of Luza's 100th Birthday and the Random Italian Thing, I give you...

  The best mac and cheese

Flat Pan Mac and Cheese (estilo Osmunda)

  • 3/4 pound elbow macaroni
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (you'll be dividing it up)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups whole milk (must be whole for the best texture)
  • 5 cups chicken broth (divided)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 6 oz bread crumbs. (I use fresh bread and make crumbs with my food processor. This gives it a fresher
  • taste.)
  • 1 medium bunch of fresh parsley
  • 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups of grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)
  • 1 cup Fresh Mozzarella, diced into small cubes (8 oz)
  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Add a tablespoon of kosher salt.
  3. Boil macaroni for about 5 minutes. You want it "al dente." Drain. Do not rinse. Set aside.
  4. In the same large pot, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat.
  5. Add flour, whisking constantly for about a minute. Add milk and chicken broth, whisking constantly.
  6. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and gently simmer. Add kosher salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Simmer until mixture begins to thicken, about 20 minutes. Note: It won't get too thick, but it should coat the spoon.
  8. Meanwhile, melt remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Measure 3 cups of breadcrumbs (Pulse bread in food processor to make crumbs or use packaged crumbs) and place in a mixing bowl.
  9. Add parsley and garlic to food processor. Pulse until fine, then add to bowl with breadcrumbs. Season with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Pour butter over top and mix with spatula until combined.
  10. In a large mixing bowl, toss macaroni with grated the grated Parmesan — it's ok if the noodles are sticking together.
  11. Pour the milk mixture (bechamel) over the top of the noodles. They should come apart easily now.
  12. Line a long, flat, jelly roll pan with a sheet of parchment paper. Spread macaroni mixture over top.
  13. Distribute the diced mozzarella cubes over top. Scatter breadcrumb mixture evenly over top of those. You can add any other toppings that make you happy at this point. I like it as is.
  14. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until top is golden and the macaroni is bubbling. Let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

 Also, it's not too late if you would like to send my mom a Happy 100th Birthday Greeting. Click here and feel free to leave your good wishes in the comment section.