Grammie’s Macaroni Salad: The secret’s in the dressing. Get the recipe, below. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

An occasional series in which staff members share a recipe we turn to time and time again.

Norma Raymond — a.k.a. Grammie, my husband’s great-grandmother — was known for many things, among them: her love of dancing and the songs of Patti Page, a fondness for frogs and lighthouses, and her intense welcoming nature, displayed in part by a refrigerator stocked with the favorite foods of those who visited her in Burlington, Vt.

Whenever Braeden and I went there, that meant the fridge was filled with barbecue sauce-soaked spareribs, potato salad, an assortment of pickles and macaroni salad. She did the cooking several days in advance of our arrival, because Grammie was a smart and practical woman.

That macaroni salad, with its curious pinkish-orange hue, was the stuff of legend: a tangy, almost sweet, mayonnaise-based dressing, perfectly cooked elbow macaroni, chopped hard-cooked eggs, and, occasionally, diced bell pepper (always green), shrimp or crab. It was reliable and always there for you, just like Grammie.


Norma Raymond at the World War II Memorial in Washington. (Braeden Eastman)

Of course, the recipe was not written down. She had been making it for years — even a bandmate of her son’s would request it whenever he stayed over, in the 1960s — so it’s not as though she needed to keep notes.

You can see where this is going. There are many questions about Grammie’s life that will remain unanswered. She died in October of last year, at 94. But thanks to some digging and testing, we’ve at least come close to answering one of them: how to make that pasta salad.

We helped Braeden’s grandma, Linda, clean up Grammie’s house. She combed through Grammie’s recipe box and other stashes of recipe clippings; we looked through shelves of spiral-bound cookbooks. Linda found just two recipes for macaroni salad, snipped from the back of a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar and a box of Mueller’s elbow macaroni, neither of which really sounded right.

Slightly faulty memories would have to do.

When you try to decode an old family recipe, it is helpful albeit counterintuitive to start by interviewing those who did not like the dish. They might be able to tell you precisely why they politely declined each time it was offered, because chances are good that they can pick out the objectionable ingredients. This is how we concluded that, yes, Grammie’s macaroni salad contained hard-cooked eggs: Because my mother-in-law doesn’t like them.

We knew Grammie’s secret ingredient was (look away, mayo snobs) Miracle Whip salad dressing — just a touch — mixed with mayonnaise. So we stirred together a few variations, based loosely on the Hellmann’s clipping. The first, a one-to-one ratio of Miracle Whip to mayo, was close but a tad too sweet. The second, one part MW to three parts mayo, was better. Both were the wrong color — closer to daffodil yellow (blame the mustard, as included in the clipping).

Another very important key in deciphering a lost recipe: Identify the person who was closest to the cook. In our case, that was Linda. “She would ‘marinate’ the cooked pasta in Catalina dressing,” she said. “Not a lot. Just enough to coat the pasta.” And just enough to give it that telltale color and add the missing tang.

The third secret proved to be time. Immediately after it was mixed together, the salad tasted acceptably close to how we remembered it. But after a few days’ refrigeration (remember, Grammie made everything ahead!), it was perfect. Reliably so.

Recipe:

Grammie’s Macaroni Salad

8 to 12 servings (makes 8 cups)

Ingredients

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

12 ounces dried macaroni

1/4 cup Catalina dressing

3/4 cup mayonnaise, preferably not low-fat

1/4 cup Miracle Whip (salad dressing)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced (about 3/4 cup)

2 large hard-cooked eggs, chopped or grated (see NOTE)

Steps

Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain, then rinse under cool running water.

Drain again, then transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Add the Catalina dressing right away, stirring to coat evenly.

Mix together the mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, the teaspoon of salt, pepper, vinegar and sugar in a medium bowl. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the mixture to the pasta and stir to incorporate, then add the chopped bell pepper and hard-cooked egg, stirring so they are evenly distributed. Taste, and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed.

NOTE: To hard-cook eggs, boil a few inches of water in a pot, over medium-high heat. Place the eggs in a steamer basket; seat over the boiling water; cover and reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 12 or 13 minutes, then turn off the heat. Transfer the eggs to a bowl with enough water and ice cubes to cover. Let them sit for 10 minutes, then drain and peel.

NUTRITIONAL ANALYSIS | Per serving, based on 12: 250 calories, 5 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

Adapted from Eastman family memories and an old clipping from the back of a Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar.

Tested by Kara Elder; email questions to food@washpost.com

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