My old boyfriend, Rick, used to say that I was the most resilient person he had ever known. In fact, he likened me to one of those inflatable clown bounce-back punching bags we had as kids. No matter how many punches life served me, or how hard, I’d bounce right back up with a smile on my face.
Plus, I’m one of those annoying people who always tries to find the silver lining in things - “the eternal optimist” – truly believing that things will turn out just fine in the end. And maybe it seems to me like they always do turn out fine because of my silver lining optimism. “What’s that, my son had a terrible accident and now is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of it?,” I ask. Silver lining: it’s been a powerful bonding experience and we are closer than ever.
But this last Sunday – Easter Sunday – the punches were coming and I found my bounce-back powers were inflating. Andrew’s newly-acquainted anxiety and panic disorder had decided to take a nasty turn – no more driving in the car. He’s so fearful that he will have a panic attack while driving that he’ll open the car door and want to jump out, that just sitting in a car makes him feel anxious.
As we tried over and over (for about 4 hours) to do and say everything in our power to get him to get in the car so we could go to the beach and enjoy family Easter time, I felt my own stress level rise. The implications of having a completely homebound child – unable to go to school, the movies for his birthday party in a few weeks, his father’s house, anywhere again – was too much to bear. Both of our lives would be flipped upside down.
I had to de-compress quickly and since I have no more vices except maybe an occasional scoop of organic ice cream, it was time to hit the road. I threw on my running shoes and headed towards the nearby Phoenix Lake. Well, wouldn’t you know, a little Easter “miracle” took place and by the time I got back from that run, my attitude had done a 180 and Andrew quickly and willingly just jumped in the car to go with me to Safeway to buy ingredients for our dinner.
That “miracle” took the form of a conversation with a woman who was also on a run. She asked me how my Easter was going and it all just spilled out. Afterwards, I asked the beautiful, young woman if she had children at the grammar school. Her face turned sullen and she said, “my husband and I have been trying for three years to have children. Today was especially stressful because his grown children were over with their babies and toddlers. It was too much to bear, I yelled at my husband on my way out for this run.” Somehow our chance connection helped to put things in perspective for both of us.
I was feeling “bounced back” when I came back in the house, grabbed my purse, and told Andrew I was going to Safeway, he could come or stay, and bolted out the door. He ran after me and off we went. I relished in the relief and joy, and gave Andrew a huge hug in the freezer section, so proud that he overcame his fear, at least for that moment.
On a day like that, a traditional Easter dinner just isn’t right. There’s very little that IS traditional about my little family – and after the day we had, we needed comfort food in a big way. My daughter’s go-to comfort food of all time is Macaroni & Cheese. So we baked together, laughed together, and ate together, and invited the little untraditional family next door to come over and share it all with us.
See, once again, everything turned out just fine.
This recipe comes from Homeroom, in Oakland, California, a restaurant that specializes in just one thing: mac & cheese.
For the béchamel:
• 4 cups (1 quart) whole milk
• 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 2 tablespoons kosher salt
• Kosher salt
• 1 pound elbow macaroni
• 8 ounces shredded 2-year aged sharp cheddar cheese (about 3 cups)
• 3 ounces grated Pecorino Romano cheese (about 1 cup)
• 2/3 cup panko (optional)
For the béchamel:
. Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until it just comes to a simmer, then turn off the heat and set aside.
. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk constantly until the mixture turns light brown in color, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
. While whisking constantly, slowly add the hot milk to the flour mixture until evenly combined and smooth. (It will get very thick when you first add the milk, then thin out.)
. Return the saucepan to medium-high heat and while whisking constantly, cook until the sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the salt, taste, and add the remaining salt as desired. Remove from the heat and set aside.
. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until it’s almost al dente (just on the edge of being underdone), then drain and rinse with cold water; set aside. (If you plan to top the mac ‘n’ cheese with panko and bake it, heat the oven to 400°F and arrange a rack in the middle.)
Place the reserved saucepan of béchamel over medium heat and stir in both cheeses just until melted and smooth. Add the pasta and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is heated through and steaming, about 2 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately or, if baking, transfer to a 5-quart baking dish, sprinkle with the panko, and bake until bubbling and brown on top, about 25 to 30 minutes.