Since both CHEESE and PASTA (any shape will do) are pretty high on Yeoldfurt's list of favorite foods, this dish is one of his favorites. When my mother made this, she didn't put meat in it because she generally served it as a side dish to meat, and she started with a thick White Sauce made from scratch, then melted cubes of cheddar cheese into it. I've added meat to it as a matter of convenience (one dish meals mean less work and less clean up!) and I usually melt some of the spicy Mexican Cheese version of Velveeta for the sauce ...also as a matter of convenience. If I didn't have a full time job that kept me away from home 10 hours of the day, I would make my cheese sauce from scratch too, but even with Velveeta, it's still really good.
There was one thing my mom did as a garnish that I have never done for Yeoldfurt. She would beat an egg with about two tablespoons of water and a little salt & pepper to make an egg wash. She would set that aside in a pie plate. Then she would put about a cup of crushed saltine crackers as a coating in a separate pie plate. In the meantime, she was melting a cube of butter in a small skillet. She would slice one good sized tomato in five slices (there were five of us), dip the slices in the egg wash, dredge them in the crackers and then fry them in the melted butter until they were golden brown on both sides. Just before she put her macaroni and cheese in the oven to bake, she would put these fried tomatoes on top as a garnish. It was a pretty garnish and oh so good!
When Yeoldfurt was leaving for work today, he mentioned that he'd like some Macaroni and Cheese for tomorrow's supper and I told him about the fried tomato garnish my mom used to do. His eyes lit up so we'll find out tomorrow night if he likes it as much as he thinks he will.
As I said, my Macaroni and Cheese is based on the way my mom made it, but tweaked to accommodate our busier lifestyle and Yeoldfurt's penchant for spicy. Yeoldfurt asked me to share the recipe, so here you go:
When you start frying the tomatoes, you want to set up an assembly line because they will cook very quickly. Melt the butter in the same skillet you used when you cooked the sausage and diced onion. Crack a raw egg into a shallow dish, add two tablespoons of cold water, and beat well. Add salt & pepper to taste. Crush the saltines and put them in shallow dish ...a pie plate works well. You need to have a couple of layers of paper towel on a plate next to the skillet to drain the fried tomatoes when they're done. Once everything is ready, set up your assembly line ...tomato slices, the egg wash, the pie plate of saltine crumbs, the melted butter in the skillet and the paper towel to drain ...in that order. The tomatoes will only take a few minutes to cook once you get started, so now would be a good time to preheat the oven to 350 degrees. After all the tomatoes are fried and drained, arrange them on top of the macaroni and cheese. What the heck, if you're feeling decadent, pour the melted butter from the fried tomatoes over the top too. Everything is better with butter, right? If that feels a little too decadent, you're just kidding yourself ...it's not like this recipe would ever make it into the Heart Healthy magazines! Now sprinkle the crumbled bacon evenly over the top and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes before serving. A nice tossed salad and some fresh or canned fruit for dessert and you have a complete, well-balanced meal.
If you want to make this ahead, you can cover it with plastic wrap and it will keep for several days in the refrigerator, or can be frozen for several months. If you plan to freeze it but want to use the fried tomato garnish, I would freeze it without the fried tomatoes and make them fresh before you bake it.