Now that our life has gotten back to normal – post harvest that is. I am realizing how different it is to not have Joe living under our roof.
I had lunch with a new friend yesterday and he asked me the age of my oldest child. “Eighteen” I answered. “Wow, you’re on the cusp. I mean, you can practically see the other side,” he said (his only child is two). Yep, he’s right about that. Even though I still have two at home, ages 16 and 12, I have to admit that since Joe has gone to college I can clearly see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Please know, I am not rushing it. I thoroughly enjoy my kids (most of the time) and I am in no hurry to be through this phase of my life.
But this bittersweet truth can’t be denied. Where it used to be just a blur in the distant future, the reality of a life without children living at home is now so clear to me. Even with just one child gone from our house, I am amazed at how much quieter it is here. How much empty space there is. Like every other stage of parenting, this realization takes me completely by surprise – because of course, no matter what anyone says to you, there is no way to really know it until you live it.
When our children were small we spent a lot of time crafting meaningful and comforting traditions and rituals to make home and holidays feel special. I didn’t realize then how much we all would come to depend on them. So now, even if they haven’t quite ended yet, I am still sentimental for the rituals of their childhood.
Take Halloween, for instance. This Saturday will almost certainly be the last year that Charlotte, who is 12 and in 7th grade, goes trick-or-treating. I can’t say I will miss the costume planning/costume executing/sugar rush part of Halloween (I’ve never been much for costuming. Or candy) but I am reluctant to let go of our other traditions of the day.
Since Joe was just an infant, we have shared Halloween night with a group of friends, mostly unchanged through the years. First we gathered for several years at the home of my kids’ “emergency grandparents”. The kids ate pumpkin waffles and the grown ups ate chili. Once our children were old enough to want to trick or treat in their own neighborhood with their own friends, we moved the gathering to our house. As the mom and not the “emergency grandparent”, I promptly switched the too sugary pumpkin waffles for the more sensible but equally popular macaroni and cheese. The adults still ate chili (with a side of mac and cheese).
Each year the dozen or so kids who were here were made to sit and get a reasonable portion of mac and cheese in their tummies before the excitement of trick or treating and all that candy was too great to resist and off they would go into the dark and often rainy night – a motley band of princesses, ghosts, Harry Potters and ninjas, with a cluster of dads following along and bringing up the rear. Here’s a few photos from those days:
As the years have passed, fewer and fewer of the kids have gotten dressed up. For awhile the older ones were satisfied with watching Halloween themed movies while the little ones went out into the neighborhood. Now of course those older ones are full blown teenagers – or beyond – and are off doing their own thing on Halloween night.
This year, it will just be Charlotte and two of her friends here. Nevertheless, the same group of grown ups will gather – there’ll be about 16 of us. When Charlotte and I were planning the menu I asked “What shall we have?” And she looked at me with surprise and said “chili, of course!”. And then “Do you think we still want mac and cheese?” I asked. “Oh yes, we have to have mac and cheese!” That was a relief.
Thank goodness for those comforting rituals, so many of which are built around food.
So this year’s menu will look almost exactly the same as it has for the last 12 or 13 years, even though the median age of the guests is definitely trending upward.
Chips, Salsa and Guacamole
Halibut Ceviche (contributed by a friend)
All-American Beef Chili (from Cook’s Illustrated Best Make Ahead Recipes)
Espresso Black Bean Chili (from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)
Best Homemade Baked Macaroni and Cheese (recipe below)
Cornbread (contributed by a friend)
Romaine Salad with a Lemon-y Vinaigrette
This is my own macaroni and cheese recipe I have developed over the years, gleaning tips and ideas from different recipes I’ve read. While this is a bit of a production to make, and it’ll never win any prizes in the low cal, low fat or low carb department, I think of it as special occasion comfort food. I only make it two to three times a year, and I would certainly rather have my children eating this version than who-knows-what-makes-it-that-color Mac and Cheese that comes in the blue box.
Plus, this is an incredibly forgiving dish that you can adapt to whatever kind of pasta and cheese you have on hand. You can even make it in advance – by a day or even a few hours. And last but not least, it is beloved by children and adults alike.
- 1 pound dried pasta (see head note about shape)
- 1 12 ounce can evaporated milk
- 4 cups milk
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 6 tablespoons flour
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce (don't worry, this will not make the end dish spicy)
- 12 ounces grated cheese (see head note)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 cups breadcrumbs, preferably fresh (see note below for instructions)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Cook the pasta according to package directions, perhaps just under cooking it by a minute or two. Drain and rinse with cold water.
- Combine the milks in a heavy saucepan and warm them to just under a boil. Watch this carefully, it's a mess if it boils over.
- Meanwhile, in another medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium low heat. Increase the heat to medium and add the flour. Stir, almost constantly for about five minutes until the raw flour flavor is gone. While you're doing this you can stir in the paprika, mustard, hot sauce and a hefty pinch of salt and ground pepper.
- After about five minutes pour the hot milk into the flour and butter mixture and stir or whisk steadily over medium heat until the mixture gets thick. About 5 minutes.
- Butter or oil a 9 X 13 baking dish and dump the pasta in it. Now stir in the milk mixture until incorporated. Next comes the cheese, dump it all on top and stir it into the pasta and milk mix. (You can do this in a separate mixing bowl if you prefer, then transfer to the baking dish.)
- Set the casserole aside and make the breadcrumbs.
- In a large skillet melt the 4 tablespoons butter, when it's warm and bubbling add the breadcrumbs and salt and stir occasionally until the breadcrumbs are golden and smell toasty.
- Top the casserole with the breadcrumbs and put it in the oven for about 30 minutes. If, after that time the crumbs are not as golden as you like you can put the whole thing under the broiler for a few minutes.
- Let sit, covered with foil, for about 10 minutes before serving hot (or warm, if you're serving it to small children).
- Breadcrumbs: I often use store-bought Panko for breadcrumbs but really making your own is a cinch and definitely tastes better. For 2 cups crumbs take about 3 slices of white or whole wheat bread, tear it into large pieces and put it the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the food processor for about 10 or 12 pulses until the breadcrumbs are the right consistency. That's it. Save any extra in a zip lock bag or airtight container in the fridge or freezer.
- This mac and cheese can be made a day in advance and reheated, covered in foil, in a 350 degree oven. It can also hold quite a while. Covered tightly with foil let it rest in a warm oven for as much as an hour until you need it. This is an incredibly forgiving dish, thank goodness.