On the strawberry patch: Mac and cheese for make-believe

Indulging childhood memories with this favorite

He was lying on his belly on the fluffy carpet in his bedroom, propped up on his elbows with two small toys in his hands, and those toys were having a serious conversation.

His little eyebrows furrowed, his face stern, and the pitch of his sweet voice dropped as the little horse scolded the car in his other hand. “You drive on the road!”, the horse told the car. “Sorry, Horsie. Sorry I ran into you,” was the car’s reply. Then they continued their imaginary journey.

He used to rely on me to guide his play and direct the events of our pretend adventures, but now he creates his own stories, and I’m privileged to watch it all unfold through his cracked bedroom door. Armed with the characters and scenarios from his bedtime stories, he takes himself on grand escapades and explores his personality through stuffed and plastic avatars.

Sometimes he lets me join him, and when I’m very lucky, he’ll come and ask me to join with a character piece in hand for me to bring to life.

These joyful forays into childhood imagination are one of my favorite perks of parenthood. In what other context would we as adults ever get to relive those forgotten experiences of our youth? For a brief time, I’m not just his loving Mommy, I’m also his treasured playmate, and his best friend.

Soon he will make friends his own age, and one day soon he will stop asking me to play with him — but hopefully not too soon.

When our spaceship has returned from Mars, and the magic wand has been returned to the wizard, Mommy needs to make dinner. Most nights we get grownup meals, but sometimes I like to indulge my childhood cravings a little, and on those nights, I serve some mac and cheese.

I had shells in the pantry, not macaroni, but there isn’t much difference for this application.

Shells and cheese


1 pound any dry pasta — macaroni, shells, rotini, penne, bow ties (farfalle) … just not straight noodles like spaghetti or linguine.

4 cups milk

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar

1 cup shredded gouda

1 cup shredded mozzarella

*Note: you can use basically any cheese you have on hand that will melt smoothly. I would advise against bleu cheeses or anything too strongly flavored.

1 teaspoon salt (more or less to taste)

Black pepper to taste

½ teaspoon nutmeg


Bring plenty of salted water to a boil.

Cook pasta until almost cooked. Strain and set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until melted, then whisk in the flour.

Cook, whisking constantly, for about 5 minutes.

Add in 1 cup of the milk and whisk to combine.

When the mixture is smooth, add the rest of the milk.

Cook until the milk is steaming and has thickened slightly.

Remove from the heat and slowly add in your cheeses, reserving about ¼ of the cheese as topping.

Keep stirring after all the cheese has been added until the cheese has completely melted.

Taste and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Pour over your cooked noodles and stir to combine.

Transfer to a casserole dish, pack down, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Move to a 350-degree oven for 20-25 minutes until the cheese on top has melted and browned slightly.