For as long as I can remember my mother has called me “Miss Jenny.” Not all the time and not necessarily in public, but often enough so that I don’t notice unless I really stop and think about it. As an endearing as the little nickname is, I’m convinced my mom started calling me that not to be cute, but because it was part of a bigger plan she had for me.
Right after college, Mom had a roommate named Jane. To the rest of the world, though, Jane was known as “Miss Janey” the host of Pittsburgh’s Romper Room show. She was a celebrity among preschoolers (I feel certain I might hear from a few of you on this one) as well as in the greater Western Pennsylvania region, and to my mom, who at the time had a desk job at U.S. Steel, no one was more glamorous. On top of being a TV star, Miss Janey was warm, witty, and beautiful. Full of life was the term she’d use. ”Oh Jenny,” my mom would say. “She was just like you.” And just like that I’d imagine myself as Miss Jenny the celebrity TV host.
Moms are smart that way.
There would be more plans. My mother would go out of her way at the Grand Union to point out Geraldine Ferraro on the cover of Newsweek, and tell my sister and me whenever the occasion presented itself: “You could be the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court if you wanted to be.” (Until 1981 at which point we learned we’d have to settle for Second.) My mother made sure to steer me in the direction of some wildcard careers, too, pointing out that I’d make a great eye surgeon because “Oh Jenny, you’re so good with your fingers,” and once even making me sit down to draw a cartoon for the New Yorker because “Oh Jenny, you can draw better than any of these guys.” A real estate lawyer whose idea of fun was (still is) pouring through a densely-typed annotated contract, she didn’t quite grasp that the creative industries could sometimes be a little more complicated than that.
Her relentless career-mapping didn’t stop just because I became a grown-up. If anything, it ramped up. When I was just starting out in magazines — I mean just starting out, like bottom-of-the-barrel starting out — she sent me an article in the New York Times that profiled the newly appointed glamorous editor-in-chief of a super high-end lifestyle magazine. (Back when there were such things.) This editor just had a baby and I remember reps from Prada and Calvin Klein falling all over themselves figuring out what to send the little boy for a gift. The editor was a Big Deal and her appointment was Big News. But according to my mom, whoever hired her for the job had made a mistake by not interviewing me, the girl who was in charge of editing the programming schedule for a cable TV guide.
“You would’ve been perfect for that job, Jenny. She reminded me of you. She sounds just like you.”
And then a few weeks ago, during a cold spell in February, Mom called to tell me that she had just watched someone on the Today show making macaroni and cheese — all in one pot apparently. “Oh you would’ve loved her. She was so natural and funny. I think maybe you should try to watch it. She was sweet. Just a doll. She was just like you.”
The seed she planted that time was probably not what she had hoped for. Instead of unleashing my inner Miss Jenny, I instead found myself obsessing over the idea of a one-pot baked macaroni and cheese. My nine-year-old loves Mac & Cheese but for whatever reason I find myself avoiding a homemade batch because of all the gear involved. I started experimenting, spending more time in the kitchen that I would ever admit to Sandra Day O’Connor (or my mother). I discovered that it was a great recipe for salvaging leftover heels of cheese (almost any combo of hard cheeses worked) and though I never quite pared it down to ONE pot, I streamlined it to the point where all the prep work could be done in the time it took for the pasta to cook. Which means I have that much more time to work on my New Yorker cartoons.
Macaroni & Cheese
The first thing Miss Jenny would like you to know is that you should get that pot of water on the stove to boil immediately. Do it right now and then get the rest of the ingredients organized and prepped. In the end, you should only use two pots. This serves about eight kids (or probably two adults and three kids) and seems like the right kind of thing to make for a slumber party.
1 pound tubular pasta, such as penne rigate shown above
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon mustard powder
salt and pepper
1 3/4 cups milk
2 cups grated hard cheese (I used a mix of Parmesan, Cheddar, and aged Gouda Parano because that’s what I had in the fridge)
1/2 cup combination bread crumbs OR panko OR crumbled potato chips, mixed with 1 tablespoon olive oil
Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare pasta according to package instructions and drain. While it cooks melt the butter in a Dutch Oven over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, paprika, mustard powder, salt, and pepper, then slowly drizzle in the milk, whisking continuously until mixture is smooth. Raise heat a bit and bring to a roiling simmer. Cook until it thickens, about 1 minute. Toss in pasta and cheese. (It might look extra gooey — but that will be absorbed in the oven.)
Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and crumbled potato chips and bake for 20-25 minutes until it’s golden on top and bubbly on the sides.
My daughter’s idea of the perfect school lunch. She’ll eat it freezing cold if she has to.
Speaking of mothers, I’ll be at Anderson’s Book Store in Larchmont, NY on May 4 (2:00-4:00), signing books for anyone looking for a nice Mother’s Day gift. For those of you who don’t live in Larchmont, you can always find my book on this thing called the Interweb. As always, I’m happy to send free book plates with a special message. Send requests to jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com with the subject “Book plate.” Preferably before May 5 to guarantee delivery in time for Mother’s Day on May 12.