week 4: st. george's international school

We take the elevator down to the garage, buckle into the long-term-rental Volvo wagon, drive ten minutes out to the suburb of Hamm, and march the boys onto the small, tidy campus at the top of a hill. Their lunches have been fretted-over and packed into shiny new hard-plastic boxes that are packed into new nylon lunch-bags that are packed into new backpacks, which also contain the new indoor shoes--high-top heavy-felt slippers--that we bought the previous weekend at Le Bon Marché in Paris. We enter the assigned door at the end of the corridor, find the assigned classrooms; we say hello to the teachers, exchange final hugs and kisses. Then the little boys turn away and launch into their new worlds, barely a glance back at us; I am suddenly overcome by my irrelevance.

Alex's teacher is Mrs. Fyfe, Sam's is Mrs. Foulds; these are pronounced Fife and Folds, like a medieval-music-themed laundromat. Within a week, the boys start saying things like "rubbish bin"; Alex compliments his brother, "Well done, Sam, well done." This is what happens when the American school, here called International School of Luxembourg, has no room for your Ecuadorean-accented-Spanish-speaking New Yorkers: they attend a St.-Somebody's school and quickly become little Englishmen. 

I collect the boys at the end of that first day, and they greet each other with relieved smiles--this is really the first time that they've been apart in school, and the first full schoolday they've ever experienced--but initially no talking. After a minute, Alex breaks the silence. "Sam," he says, without looking at his brother, "do you have any friends yet?" Sam glances at Alex, shakes his head, and keeps walking. "I have one," Alex says, nodding in agreement with himself. "But I don't know his name."

a recipe: macaroni and cheese

I ask Madeline if she wants anything from the farmer's market. "Yes," she says, "there's a guy who looks like he specializes in Comté." I walk over to the square, where this guy isn't hard to find: his sign says, "Ici on spécialise dans le Comté," and he's standing beside an intimidating round of Alpine-looking cheese that must be 2 feet across and approaching 100 pounds. He also has a few baskets of bread, and a refrigerated case that holds a handful of other, neglected cheeses; but the big Comté is out in the open, on a board, ready for action. "Moyen," he says to me, which is "hello" in Luxembourgeois or "middle" in French.

"Moyen," I answer. "Le Comté?" I keep my Luxembourgeois-French sentences pretty brief and straightforward; and perhaps "sentences" isn't entirely accurate.

He nods, picks up his guillotine--a long, curved blade with handles on either side--and places it on the cheese. "Ça?" He counters my five syllables with one.

And I respond with no syllables--a mere nod and a smile--without really considering the question, until he leans onto his guillotine and slices off a gigantic section of cheese. I assumed his Ça? meant that he was asking me to confirm which cheese I wanted, but now I realize that my assumption was asinine; in actuality he was asking me if I wanted him to cut the thing where he'd placed the blade. And this is how I came to buy 2-plus pounds of  Comté.

So when that first week of school rolled around, and I felt like making the most comforting of all comfort foods, I had a decent supply of Comté. But I didn't think Comté alone would make a good mac-and-cheese--too nutty, not sharp enough, and, as far as the boys are concerned, too white--so I combined it with aged Mimolette, whose butterscotch assertiveness and deep orange color create the flavor I want and the appearance my kids prefer. There are no boxes of Annie's here in Luxembourg; there's not even Kraft. So the boys will have to settle for farmstand Comté combined with vieille Mimolette. 

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Powdered mustard, optional
3/4 pound cheese (see below), grated
Salt and pepper
1 pound small pasta
1/2 cup bacon lardons, for gilding the lily, and breadcrumbs plus butter plus grated Parmesan, for yet more ornamentation

In a large pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. When the foam dissipates, throw in the flour. Whisk for a minute. Add a splash of milk and whisk for a few seconds; add another splash and whisk some more. Add 1/2 cup and continue to whisk. And now make a decision: thick cheese sauce, thin cheese sauce, or in the middle? For thick, you need about 2 cups milk total; for thin, use an entire litre, as they'd spell it here at St. George's. Whichever amount you use, whisk all the milk for a couple of minutes, until hot and slightly thickened; don't let it boil.

Now, if the cheeses you're using are relatively mild--like Comté or Gruyère combined with an American Cheddar--then you might want to use some mustard for a bit of kick: a teaspoon of mustard powder, dissolved in a teaspoon of warm water and then dumped into the thickened milk. But if you've got a salty, assertive Mimolette or a farmstead English Cheddar or an aged Gouda, you don't need the mustard. I usually use a combination of cheeses: one nutty Alpine with a lot of butter content, and one salty cheese with tang and sweetness. Whatever you're using, add the shredded cheese into the hot milk, and stir until all the cheese has melted and the mixture is smooth. Taste, and add salt and pepper if you want (but skip the salt if you're going to add the bacon). Keep the cheese sauce warm over very low flame, stirring frequently.

Boil and drain the pasta. Pour it into the cheese sauce, stir until well-combined, et voilà!

If you want to make this extra-decadent, and if you have bacon lardons lying around (as do I, and everyone else in Luxembourg; see Week 2), fry them over medium heat in a small dry skillet until firmed-up and the fat has rendered. Drain on paper towels, then stir into the cheesed pasta. To go really nuts, pour this mixture into a casserole. Then toast a handful of breadcrumbs with a pat of butter in a skillet, tossing around for a minute or two, till golden (but be careful: golden breadcrumbs quickly turn to burnt ones). Top the noodles with the toasted breadcrumbs, then sprinkle the whole outfit with Parmesan. Broil till the topping is lightly browned, and preschedule a week's worth of green salads to follow. 

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