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Comfort and Joy 

click to enlarge Sadie - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAM SIMON
  • photo courtesy of Sam Simon
  • Sadie

In the last weeks of August, it's tempting to close the windows halfway at bedtime, to start thinking about picking apples instead of berries and to dream about making soup. Despite these autumn yearnings, I try to stretch summer out as long as I can. But it's impossible to avoid the event that essentially ends the season: the first day of school.

At the Burlington Children's Space, where I work preparing food for toddlers and preschoolers, we spend that final week of August getting ready to transition kids into new classrooms. Older preschoolers take off for kindergarten, and babies arrive in the infant room. It's an exciting time, full of possibility. But it can also be anxiety provoking for kids and parents.

I keep this in mind in the kitchen. During those first few weeks, I make comforting favorites for lunch to help everyone settle in. A new place seems friendlier when you can fill your belly with something warm, tasty and familiar.

Macaroni and cheese — from scratch, of course — always seems to do the trick. The dish hooks even the pickiest eaters and goes well with just about any vegetable that's in season.

It's tradition to kick off the BCS school year with a big family dinner in September. We invite the kids and their families to relax and get to know each other over a shared meal. Macaroni and cheese gets everyone to fill their plates, and never fails to break the ice. I serve it with a big salad and fresh bread, just as I do for my own family.

This year, for the first time, I'll drop off all three of my kids on the first day of school. Sadie, 3, heads to Integrated Arts Academy with her big brothers — Eli, 10, and Cal, 7 — for preschool. I'm not sure what I'll do that morning, alone for the first time in seven years. Most likely, I'll mope just a little, then start thinking about making this for dinner, to welcome everyone home.

Macaroni and Cheese

I learned to make basic, from-scratch cheese sauce from the Betty Crocker cookbook my mom gave me when I got married. This recipe, which I created, feeds my family of 5, with leftovers for lunch the next day.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. pasta, any shape
  • 3 Tbsp. butter
  • 1-1 - lbs. good cheddar cheese (I usually
  • use Cabot Sharp or Seriously Sharp)
  • 3 Tbsp. flour
  • 2 - cups milk (no skim)
  • 3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
  • (Note: Substitute wheat-free pasta and omit breadcrumbs to go gluten free.)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook the pasta according to package directions.
  2. While the pasta cooks, grate the cheese and set aside.
  3. Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-size saucepan. When it's fully melted, add the flour and whisk together until it makes a paste. Add the milk and whisk! Turn the heat up to medium-high, and continue whisking until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken up. Don't let it sit.
  4. Add the cheese and keep whisking until it's melted and the sauce is creamy. Add salt and pepper to taste. (You could also add a clove or two of finely chopped garlic, a teaspoon of cumin or a little crushed red pepper if your family likes the spicy stuff!)
  5. Turn the heat down to low until you're ready to pour the sauce over the pasta.
  6. When the pasta is ready, drain and pour it into a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish or a Dutch oven. Pour the cheese sauce over the top and mix well to make sure all the pasta is coated. Sprinkle the Parmesan and breadcrumbs over the top, then pop it into the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, until it's nice and bubbly around the edges. If you like the top a little brown and crispy, like I do, put it under the broiler for an extra 4-5 minutes.
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