The "cheese of kings and popes" is at the core of a mac and cheese-based recipe for salvation

An dangerous obsession gives way to cautious respect and, thanks to one recipe, peaceful acceptance

Published May 21, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)


I used to dream of mac and cheese. There were actual dreams, where I’d wake up hungry with a plate of noodles soaked in cheesy sauce dancing in my half-consciousness. And there were daydreams, where I’d plot the perfect roux that would allow that cheese to cling beautifully to that pasta.

When I was in the thick of my anorexia, I also became obsessed with muffins: berry muffins with lemon curd, apple muffins with streusel topping, sour cream muffins with dark chocolate chips. I baked them for my roommates. I brought them to class. But I would never, ever let a crumb touch my lips. I was too afraid of that sugar/flour/butter showing up on my thighs and arms and stomach. I was too afraid of gaining the weight that I had worked so painstakingly to lose the year before.

Muffins were just the start. At Picholine, the restaurant where I worked as a hostess on nights and weekends during my freshman year of college, we served a Daube of Short Rib, a fancy way to say short ribs braised in red wine until nearly melting. I had let myself try a bite of the dish that was passed around during our pre-shift meeting, a scant mouthful, and it sent a meaty, garlicky jolt straight to my brain. Who knew short ribs could taste like that!

And don’t even get me started with the cheese cart: the shards of butterscotchy Gouda, the fudgy Stilton, and the nearly liquid rounds that required a spoon for serving. My palate was developing; my mind was expanding; my body was shrinking; and my heart hurt from a bitter mix of obsession, fear, and self-loathing.

Sophomore year, I made it to my college Student Health Services and then to a non-college therapist and nutritionist. The code on my insurance form read “anorexia-nervosa.” I thought that sounded like bullshit. Sure, I was terrified of food, ruled by it, but I was also in love with the alchemy of cooking, the way my college house smelled when I tried my hand at those short ribs, my few found minutes with the chef’s massive cookbook collection. I began dreaming of opening my own restaurant after school.

It turns out an intense preoccupation with food is a part of many eating disorders. When it comes to restriction, especially, it’s a perverse sort of torture. In my sick brain, it sounded something like this: I can’t gain weight by pouring over recipes, cooking and baking for my classmates, and watching marathons of Top Chef (the first season aired my freshman spring in 2006). It makes a sick sort of sense. We are fueled by our demons.

I especially delighted in cooking things that felt too decadent to possibly eat: I braised short ribs in red wine and rosemary, and then in ginger, lemongrass, and rice wine. I layered phyllo dough and pistachios into baklava. I had this fantasy that I would reach some imaginary place of perfect thinness, and that the thinness would lead to joy and peace, and then I would daintily eat the dishes I spent all day thinking about and cooking and stalking.

Chief among them was a grown-up mac and cheese, made in my imagination with shells, or corkscrews, and an ooey cheese sauce with just a little bit of funk from a brawny blue. It would be blanketed with breadcrumbs turned golden and crunchy in the oven. Carbs. Cheese. Butter. Perfection.

Sometime in the middle of college, my anorexia morphed into an equally miserable binge and restrict cycle. I think my brain and body couldn’t take the starving anymore. They rebelled without my consent. I began scarfing massive quantities of whatever food I could get my hands on. I’d wake up the next morning sick with regret, mentally tallying the caloric damage wrought, vowing to diet harder, stricter, better. Which I managed for a few days, weeks, or even months, before finding myself shoveling things straight from box and bag to mouth in a fugue state. Rinse and repeat.

My housemates missed the muffins — I devoured the whole bowl of batter before they made it anywhere near the oven. I started to stay away from the kitchen. It felt like the scene of the crime. Who knew what would happen there.

Over the last six years, I've slowly recovered from these multiple incarnations of eating disorders. I've (mostly) made peace with food, which I often think of untangling the love for all things culinary that led me to a career in restaurants from the destructive obsession that led to so much pain.

For the first year of recovery, I was uneasy about cooking. Spending too much time in kitchens felt like tempting fate. I ate a lot of simple meals that didn’t require much fuss: oatmeal with lots of cinnamon for breakfast, salads from Westside Market for lunch, and delivery pho for dinner. These things felt safe.

But cooking is a part of me, and I wanted my new, tenuous peace treaty with food to extend to my kitchen, then in a studio on West 95th Street. My cookbooks were stacked up, as if smiling kindly at me. I had a good cast iron skillet, and a hand-me-down casserole dish, and a hodge-podge of supplies from Housing Works. I had a new job at Fairway, which meant a discount on groceries and a whole lineup of free olive oils and vinegars on my counter.

Somehow, it felt less daunting to cook for friends than to cook for myself. I’ve always loved to host. I invited four people over, because I had five chairs. I sautéed hearty greens with a pile of shallots. I drizzled my best olive oil over sweet tomatoes. And I made that mac and cheese, the one that lived only in my culinary fantasies. I chose a sharp cheddar, and nutty Gruyere, and Roquefort. Roquefort was the favorite of Emperor Charlemagne. It’s sometimes called the “cheese of kings and popes,” and its regal nature made it feel appropriate, a cheeky contrast to the comfort food banality of mac and cheese.

A miracle happened: the dinner was a success. Not just because my friends had fun, so much fun one ended up falling asleep at the foot of my bed, like a cat, but because I ate the way I imagine a normal person eats. I had a plate of food—not a miniscule plate, not a ginormous plate, just a plate. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I didn’t binge after. I didn’t even hate myself for the pasta and cheese that graced my lips.

But I did think that the recipe needed a little more butter mixed into the breadcrumbs, to make them crispier, so I tweaked it and made it again. And again.

I have a significant Seamless habit, but my kitchen is one of my favorite places to spend time today. I don’t think obsessively about what I’m going to make for dinner. When I do think about it, it makes me smile.


Roquefort Mac and Cheese

Serves: 6 – 8


Kosher salt

1 pound cavatappi, shells, or classic elbow macaroni

1 stick unsalted butter, divided, plus extra for buttering the dish

3 cups milk

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

6 ounces Gruyere, grated

6 ounces sharp Cheddar, grated

6 ounces Roquefort or other blue cheese, crumbled

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch nutmeg

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 handful freshly chopped basil leaves



Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 2-quart casserole dish.

Boil a large pot of salted water. Add the pasta and cook according to the directions for al dente on the package. Drain well.

Make the cheese sauce: While the pasta is cooking, melt half of the butter (4 tablespoons) in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to make a roux, stirring continuously until the mixture turns pale brown and begins to bubble, about three minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk, one half cup at a time, until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat. Stir in Gruyere, Cheddar, Roquefort, pepper, and nutmeg.

Make the topping: Melt the remaining butter. In a small bowl, stir the panko breadcrumbs with the butter.

Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the prepared baking dish and top with the buttered panko. Sprinkle with basil. Bake until the dish bubbles around the edges, about 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for five minutes before serving.

By Hannah Howard

Hannah is the author of Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen. She lives in New York City and loves stinky cheese. Follow her on Instagram at hannahhoward or @hannahhoward on Twitter.

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