Holy macaroni pie

Caroline Taylor gets homesick for her Tantie’s macaroni pie. So she tries to cook it herself. Trouble now start

Illustration by James Hackett

Macaroni pie and stewed chicken! Out in the wilds of New Jersey, I hadn’t had any for so long. All that cholesterol-laden goodness. I could taste it in my mouth. The problem was, I’d never actually made macaroni pie myself. And there was no one around to make it for me.

I’d tasted plenty of macaroni pies in my time, and the best of them all was my Tantie’s. No contest. So I emailed her in Trinidad. She sent me a generations-old recipe, which looked straightforward enough: how many eggs, how much butter, how many packs of evaporated milk, etc. So far so good. But it also said:

1/2 glass regular milk
Cheese (generous amount)

Dammit, I’m not a cordon bleu chef. What size glass of milk are we talking about here? I’ve got four sizes of glasses in my cupboard. And “regular” milk — would that be skimmed, semi-skimmed, full cream, low fat, half and half? And exactly how much cheese is considered generous?

I should have just asked Tantie what she meant. But I was going through one of those nostalgic, homesick periods which involve an unbearable craving for familiar and comforting food, such as a large macaroni pie. This was no time for further clarifications. This was the time for action.

US supermarkets don’t usually sell the long, fat macaroni that you can get in Trinidad. A friend suggested using ziti, but I remembered my Tantie sometimes used elbow macaroni. That I could find. But the next complication was that I was on a diet. I was choosing “healthy” alternatives in all my cooking. I’d been weaning myself off refined carbohydrates, going only for fat-free, lactose-free dairy, and choosing the least fatty cheeses I could find. Should this be a problem, I wondered? Caribbean food is usually a hodge-podge of different styles, so I thought, why not throw some healthy hodge into the podge?

I bought enriched whole wheat elbow pasta, fat-free, lactose-free milk, and non-fat Swiss cheese. Somebody had told me that Swiss was the healthiest kind of cheese, and I actually believed them. But I didn’t have a cheese grater, and I had bought a block of cheese rather than the pre-grated variety. So I had to use a knife to cut little slivers of cheese to mix into my pie. I will not describe how time-consuming and futile this proved to be. It’s interesting how imbecilic you can become when you are in a hurry. Sunday lunch was approaching, and I was totally determined to eat a macaroni pie, come what might.

I threw my whole-wheat-Swiss-cheese-lactose-free pie into its nice baking dish, to be birthed by a 425-degree baking oven, as prescribed. I could taste the pie in my mouth already, especially as I had already finished stewing the chicken, which had come out marvellously. Well, thank goodness for small mercies.

My pie was a disaster. It was flat. Oily. Bland. The whole wheat pasta tasted disgusting. My roommates liked it, but they didn’t know any better. They weren’t Trinis. They had no idea of the savoury carbohydrate heaven that is a good macaroni pie. One of them even kept calling it macaroni cake.

Their approval somehow made me feel more miserable than ever. I dabbed my pie with paper towels, I put it back in the oven, I adorned it with ketchup. But nothing could soothe my disappointment, let alone assuage my hunger.

I rang a Trini friend in Massachusetts. What had gone wrong, I asked? I listed each ingredient, from cheese through pasta. When I had finished, she let out a horrified “Oh gyaaaaaad!”

I begged for counsel. What sort of cheese should I have used?

“Old fashioned rat cheese, girl — cheddar!”

What about the whole wheat pasta?

An ominous pause. “Try it with the cheddar and see if you could take it,” she suggested, reluctantly I thought.

Eventually, I went right to the source. Later that evening, when I had scraped the remains of my pie into the garbage, I phoned my Tantie and interrogated her. “Regular” milk, it seems, was skimmed milk. “Cheese” was cheddar cheese. A “generous” amount was as much as could be packed in with the other ingredients. She too thought I might not absolutely kill myself if I tried again with the whole wheat pasta.

I cooked another pie, this time with the approved ingredients. It came out wondrously. My roommate still called it macaroni cake, but at least now it tasted authentic. Mostly. The whole wheat pasta was still a little rugged, shall we say — but success is relative.

It tasted almost like home.