My mother has been making this dish for so long, you’d think it would have a real name by now. “Cheese Thing” doesn’t really do it justice, what with all the gooey, crispy melted cheddar and tomatoes and crunchy noodles, but that’s all we’ve ever called it. It is the ultimate comfort food. Cheese thing is good to eat at every stage – sitting on the counter raw waiting to bake, hot out of the oven, or reheated in a frying pan for breakfast the next day. Although it can be made in a matter of minutes, it’s best if it sits for a few hours or overnight before baking.
My siblings and I have tried to modify the recipe, but we always prefer the original. You may be tempted to substitute one pound medium cheddar for the half pound of each mild and sharp, but trust me, the result is not as good. I have been known to make and eat an entire Cheese Thing myself after an emotionally taxing day. Heat leftovers in a nonstick frying pan.
1 pound penne rigatte or similar tubular pasta
1/2 pound (1 brick) sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 pound (1 brick) mild cheddar cheese
One 28 oz. can whole, peeled tomatoes with juice
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (at least 5 quarts). Add the penne and cook until al dente (about 8 minutes). Don’t worry if pasta is a little undercooked, it will be finished in the oven. Meanwhile, cut both cheeses into 1/2 inch cubes. Leave tomatoes in their juice and cut them into bite-sized pieces (or squeeze them in your hands for fun).
When pasta is done, drain and return to pot. Add the butter and stir until almost melted. Add the cheese, tomatoes, sugar and salt and stir well. Pour mixture into a 2-quart baking dish – glass or ceramic is best. For optimal results, the Cheese Thing should sit for 12-24 hours before baking (although it can be cooked right away). It can stay covered in the fridge for up to three days, or it can be frozen at this point for a month.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set the Cheese Thing on a rack in the middle of the oven and bake for about one hour (or until bubbly and noodles poking out have browned considerably). Serve as a hot entree with a salad or as a side dish with meat (or cold for breakfast the next morning).
*MY NOTE: There should be a law against a dish with that much cheese. It can’t be any less healthy for you than a white-bread crusted pizza, though. It is certainly cheaper than a trip to Ci Ci’s.