If there is one dish that my family can claim as its own, it is The Cheese Thing. Truth be told, the recipe probably came from some other source lost long ago. But my mother adapted it and made it so often—especially once my brother became a vegetarian in the 1970s—and my siblings and I continue to make it often enough—sometimes coincidentally on the same day—that it stands as a Davis family original. I actually don’t make it as often as I would like to because I can’t control myself around it. As I wrote in Cook Something, I believe one batch serves 1 to 8, depending on my mood and my self control. I like it before it’s baked, once it’s baked, after it’s cooled to room temperature, chilled the next day, reheated to a crisp in a frying pan the next night, any which way.
Clearly, The Cheese Thing is a flavor that reminds me of my mother and my childhood and my family. But I’ve never served it to anyone who didn’t like it almost as much. Tonight I made it because the other day Nate said to me that he’d only had it once or twice. When we ate it—bubbling out of the oven, the points of the penne brown and crisp—he said we may call it The Cheese Thing, but it’s really just macaroni and cheese. Technically, he’s right, it’s macaroni and cheese (plus tomatoes). But the sum is more than it’s parts. And without a cream sauce to make or cheese to grate or anything to prep that can’t be finished before the pasta is cooked, it’s a simple dish that’s simply delicious.
The Cheese Thing
1 pound (500 g) penne rigate, zitti, rigatoni, or other tubular pasta, preferably cut on a diagonal (so it browns), and ridged
8 ounces mild cheddar
8 ounces extra sharp cheddar
1 28-ounce can tomatoes, without basil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente according to the package. Better to under cook than to over cook, as the noodles will continue cooking in the oven.
Meanwhile, cut the cheddars into 1/2-inch cubes or smaller. Don’t grate. the cubes melt into puddles of bubbling cheese. Also don’t try to use all medium cheddar or all of one or the other. The two different, mild and old, cheddars melt differently so the texture and flavor of the finished dish is more interesting.
Now, do as my mother did and insert a small, sharp knife into the can of tomatoes to cut the whole tomatoes up into bits with the juice.
When the pasta is done, drain well but do not rinse. Return it to the hot pot. Add the butter and stir until the butter is melted and coats the noodles. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cubed cheese and stir to evenly distribute. Don’t worry if it starts to melt. Add the cut up tomatoes with their juice and the sugar and mix well. Transfer to a rectangular 2-quart baking dish or casserole. Don’t flatten the noodles on top, rather, let the ends stick up to create an uneven surface. This will encourage browning.
I find the dish best if you now cover it and let it sit a few hours or a day in the refrigerator, so the noodles soak up some of the tomato juice, but you can also just bake it right away and it is delicious. Set the dish in a preheated 400°F. oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is brown nicely browned. Don’t worry if some of the noodles look burnt. These are the ones people will fight over. Let sit for 10 minutes, if possible, before serving. Enjoy. Serves 1 to 8.