By Elizabeth Shepherd, as told to Valerie Howes

Montreal-based jazz singer-songwriter-pianist Elizabeth Shepherd is a four-time Juno nominee and has also been nominated for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize twice. With five albums under her belt, she’s currently working on a trilogy of albums to be released over the next eight to 10 years. Touring for four months every year, she sometimes gets a little homesick. At those times, she says, there’s one special dish from her childhood that can chase away the blues.

When I was growing up, my mom would ask me just before my birthday what I wanted as a special birthday dinner. I’d always say homemade mac and cheese. Actually, it’s my birthday on Monday, and I’m going over to my parents’ place with my husband and daughter. Even now, I know that’s what my mom will make for the occasion.

My mom would only make mac and cheese about twice a year when I was a kid. That’s why it was so special. She had a couple of no-frills recipe books—super–North American ones, like the Betty Crocker Cookbook—and I’m guessing the recipe came from one of those. She wasn’t one to experiment.

She makes her mac and cheese with egg noodles, sour cream and a cheese blend—a lot of Gruyère with some cheddar and Parmesan. Then, she sprinkles bread crumbs on top and little pieces of butter so you get this golden, crispy topping.

On my birthday when I was a kid, we’d have family and friends over to share it with us. There would also be salad with everything in it: lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, celery, apples, nuts, raisins—you name it! We’d have a special juice drink, too, such as ginger ale with grape juice or one of those bottles of nonalcoholic bubbly drinks. While we lived in France for four years (my parents were posted there as Salvation Army officers), there would be a mandatory baguette. I didn’t like birthday cake, so we’d always have pie for dessert.

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This year, I’ve been on the road a lot: I was in Mexico in March, Germany in April, and before the tour ends in December, I will have been in the U.S. and across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland. I do the bulk of that touring with my husband and four-year-old daughter, Sanna. Eating out every night for what amounts to four months a year can be costly and not so good for your health, so recently we’ve been staying in hotels with kitchenettes or, more often, in apartments rented out on Airbnb to have more home-cooked meals together.

I make my mother’s mac and cheese for us when we’re feeling homesick; it’s the ultimate comfort food. Mom didn’t actually give me her recipe, so when I decided to make it, I looked up several recipes on the Internet and came up with my own version. I mix cooked penne with cream, lemon, Parmesan cheese, egg, bacon, diced shallots, salt and pepper. It’s the lazy woman’s mac and cheese, but at the same time, it’s a little more gourmet than the boxed version. My version of my mother’s mac and cheese is now one of my own daughter’s favourite dishes.

Elizabeth Shepherd’s Jazzed-Up Mac and Cheese, Courtesy of Elizabeth Shepherd, Montreal

This celebrated singer-songwriter-pianist turns to this recipe when she’s touring and in need of a little comfort.

Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 25 mins
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients
6 or 7 cremini mushrooms, sliced
butter for frying
three-quarters Spanish onion, cut in small pieces
2 cloves garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup (250 mL) cream
1 cup (250 mL) Parmesan cheese, grated
1 pkg penne, cooked
5 strips cooked bacon, chopped
2/3 cup (150 mL) cooked peas

Directions
1. In skillet, fry mushrooms in butter for 5 minutes over medium-high heat. Add onion; fry for 10 minutes, or until onion is softened. Add garlic and salt and pepper to taste; fry for 1 minute.
2. Reduce heat to medium. Add cream, stirring, and cook until bubbling; add ¾ cup (175 mL) of the Parmesan, stirring, until melted and smooth.
3. Pour mixture over cooked pasta; add bacon and peas, mixing well to combine. Divide among 4 bowls; top with remaining Parmesan and pepper to taste.

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