The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

All About Macaroni & Cheese

Stuck A Feather In His Cap And Called It Macaroni

Easily one of America's favorite comfort foods, macaroni and cheese is certainly one of mine. I learned how to make it at the age of seven or eight and I've been turning it out on a regular basis ever since. Of course, in those callow days of youth I did what almost everybody else did in the 1960s: I opened up the blue box from Kraft, poured the pasta into boiling water, cooked it for the prescribed amount of time, drained it and then mixed in a little butter, a little milk and that packet of unnatural orange “cheese” powder.

My infatuation with the dish ramped up when I discovered Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese sometime in the late '60s. Wow! Goodbye blue box, hello red one! Talk about macaroni and cheese at the next level! Believe me, I've since learned much better ways of making macaroni and cheese. But even so, there still lurk in my pantry and freezer microwavable cups of Easy Mac and a box or two of Stouffer's. So sue me. Three-and-a-half to six minutes and I'm transported back more than a half-century to Mom's kitchen and the familiar tastes I grew up with. Or, at least, reasonable facsimiles thereof.

But how did we all come to be so enamored of macaroni and cheese in the first place? Hold on as I guide you through a culinary journey with more twists than cavatappi.

Macaroni and cheese has its roots in Italy. In fact, there's an Italian idiom for things that go together naturally: “come il cacio su'maccheroni” (like cheese on macaroni). But the creamy, cheddary version we serve in the United States is practically unknown in Italy. When Italian cooks put “cheese on macaroni,” it's generally Parmigiano-Reggiano or asiago or pecorino or some other Italian cheese. Cheddar and American cheeses are not particularly popular.

The earliest known reference to the dish in Italy dates back to a late thirteenth century cookbook, anonymously authored in Latin, Liber de coquina. In it we find a recipe for de lasanis, which many consider to be the first “macaroni and cheese” recipe. The recipe employed lasagne sheets made from fermented dough, cut into two-inch squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, probably the aforementioned Parmigiano-Reggiano. The recipe's author suggested using powdered spices and layering the sheets with the cheese if desired, just as we would today when making lasagne.

According to the famous fourteenth century English cookbook, the Forme of Cury, a cheese and pasta casserole known as makerouns was made with hand-cut pasta layers sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese.

The first recipe that we would recognize as macaroni and cheese was included in Elizabeth Raffald's 1770 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. That recipe calls for a B├ęchamel sauce with cheddar cheese – technically a Mornay sauce if you want to be all French about it – which is mixed with the macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden.

They even had macaroni and cheese in France in the late eighteenth century. And why not? The Italian chefs of Caterina de Medici did teach the French to cook, after all. (I know, I know! That's a myth. But it's a fun myth because it annoys the French.) Anyway, the most popular story of how macaroni and cheese crossed the ocean to American shores involves Paris, Naples, and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

The story goes that Jefferson visited France and Italy in 1787. Basing in Paris, he traveled extensively through the south of France and Italy, writing to his friend and ambassador to Paris William Short, “architecture, painting, sculpture, antiquities, agriculture, the condition of the labouring poor fill all my moments.” Well, maybe not all of them. He also closely observed the local culture, including, of course, food and wine. Jefferson became enamored of the pasta dishes he encountered in his journeys. In 1789, he commissioned Short to purchase a pasta making machine for him. Short acquired one in Naples and had it shipped to Paris. Jefferson likely returned home before the machine reached him, but it was inventoried among his possessions at Monticello in 1793. There the soon-to-be president drew sketches of his favorite pastas and the device that made them and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process as he observed it in his travels. Evidently, the machine he ordered did not meet his requirements as he later was known to import both macaroni and Parmesan cheese from Italy for his use at Monticello. In 1802, now-President Jefferson served “a pie called macaroni” at a state dinner. At least one of the guests, Rev. Mannaseh Cutler, was not impressed. “Dined at the President's... Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. [Among other dishes] a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable. Mr. [Merriwether] Lewis told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.”

Some like to say that Jefferson “introduced” macaroni and cheese to America, and that's not quite accurate. As noted, there were recipes for variations circulating as early as 1770. But his affection for the dish certainly helped popularize it among his countrymen. He even wrote out a favorite macaroni recipe in his own hand:

6 eggs. yolks & whites.
2 wine glasses of milk
2 lb of flour
a little salt
work them together without water, and very well.
roll it then with a roller to a paper thickness
cut it into small peices which roll again with the hand into long slips, & then cut them to a proper length.
put them into warm water a quarter of an hour.
drain them.
dress them as maccaroni.
but if they are intended for soups they are to be put in the soup & not into warm water

Note the instruction “dress them as maccaroni.” Before we move on, let's take a second to look at “macaroni.”

When we think of “macaroni” today we usually think of the familiar “elbows,” right? But up until fairly recent times, the word “macaroni,” the plural form of the Italian “maccherone,” used to apply to pretty much any form of pasta, especially the short tubular varieties. While each individual shape may have had its own individual name, collectively it was all “macaroni.” And the word didn't always apply only to pasta. In eighteenth century Britain, anybody seen to be dandified or overdressed in foppish Italian fashions and wigs was derisively referred to as a “macaroni.” You didn't really think the old “Yankee Doodle” line “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” was talking about pasta, did you? (If you did you wouldn't be alone.)

Although American macaroni and cheese started out as a novelty dish for the well-to-do seated at the Presidential table, it didn't take long for its popularity to spread to the masses. A recipe for a preparation actually called “macaroni and cheese” showed up in Mary Randolph's highly influential 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. Randolph's recipe called for three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together and baked in a hot oven. Other recipes began to appear in popular publications such as Godey's Lady's Book. By the turn of the century, macaroni and cheese casseroles were being turned out in kitchens across America, aided by readily available and affordable ingredients made possible by factory production. And as macaroni and cheese became “common,” it lost its cachet among the elite.

Even though macaroni and cheese was now accessible, it still wasn't necessarily popular. It had not yet achieved the “comfort food” status it currently holds. That came along thanks to Kraft.

In the midst of the Great Depression, when Americans were seeking food options that were filling but affordable, Kraft Foods stepped up to the plate – no pun intended. James Lewis “J.L.” Kraft had pioneered the method for “processing” and powdering cheese around 1916. According to Sasha Chapman, writing in The Walrus in 2012, “The idea for boxed macaroni and cheese came during the Depression, from a salesman in St. Louis who wrapped rubber bands around packets of grated Kraft cheese and boxes of pasta and persuaded retailers to sell them as a unit.” Kraft started producing boxes of macaroni and cheese under the name “Kraft Dinner” in 1937. The contents of the box – a measured amount of pasta and a paper packet of powdered cheese – could feed a family of four for about nineteen cents. Kraft sold eight million boxes right out of the box. Again, no pun intended. This convenience and economy became increasingly popular a few years later when WWII rationing began to pinch family budgets and food options. Fifty million yellow boxes of Kraft's product were sold during the war years. The now ubiquitous blue boxes came into being in 1954, by which time “Kraft” and “macaroni and cheese” were practically synonymous.

Frozen foods began to make inroads into the dominance of canned and packaged goods about that same time, and macaroni and cheese proved to be an instant hit in the freezer case. My favorite, the previously mentioned Stouffer's, began appearing in select grocery outlets in the early 1960s and expanded to a more general market as the decade progressed. Originally developed by an Ohio-based restaurant, Stouffer's was initially considered a “high end” product, but by the end of the decade it was showing up in stores and on dinner tables across the board. Swanson's also marketed frozen macaroni and cheese as did numerous other manufacturers, including Boston Market and Amy's, but Stouffer's was always somehow a cut above. Sadly, Stouffer's has been bought and sold a couple of times over the years and the quality of the product has suffered significantly. It just doesn't taste the same anymore. It lacks that fresh, sharp cheddar flavor it had before the company started cheaping up on ingredients. But take heart! Believe it or not, the macaroni and cheese served at IKEA tastes almost like Stouffer's used to.

Today, macaroni and cheese – often abhorrently abbreviated to “mac & cheese” – is everywhere in many forms. The old blue box is still on store shelves along with its microwavable counterpart. Chef Boyardee puts macaroni and cheese in cans. Frozen product, from individual serving cups up through ginormous “family size” packages, competes for freezer space everywhere from the supermarket to the big box discount place to the corner convenience store. And more and more cooks are eschewing the frozen, canned, and packaged options in favor of returning to the dish's traditional roots: cook the pasta, make the cheese sauce, serve the dish hot and fresh to grateful eaters.

There are even food trucks and restaurants serving nothing but variations on macaroni and cheese. Take for example S'Mac (short for Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in Manhattan's East Village. It bills itself as “an exciting eatery specializing in macaroni & cheese.” I ate at another such place, Mr. Mac's in Portsmouth, NH. Mr. Mac's – with several locations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts – lays claim to “the best comfort food on the planet, with fresh ingredients all made hot and delicious to order. Perfect family dining, or to-go!” Indeed, we picked up one of their “take and bake” family-size portions for our holiday dinner table and it was quite good. On the other coast, Elbow's Mac N' Cheese serves “the best mac n' cheese” along with another of my favorites, grilled cheese sandwiches. But, darn, they use that unfortunate abbreviation.

Along with the eateries dedicated only to macaroni and cheese, there are tons of places that are famous for featuring the dish as part of their menu. Some are even infamous, a word used to describe the macaroni and cheese at Humpback Sally's in Bismarck, ND. Boston's Yankee Lobster Company serves a rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, studded with lobster plucked from ocean-fed aquariums on site. And Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle proclaims it has the “World's Best Mac and Cheese.” Maybe, but there's that abbreviation again and besides, IKEA might give them a run for the title.

And if none of those float your boat, go out and get the following ingredients at your local supermarket: macaroni, cheese, milk, and butter. Macaroni and cheese is one of the most stupid simple, entry-level cooking dishes in the culinary world. As with everything else, if you want it to taste like one of those fancy high-end dishes, use the best quality ingredients. If you don't care that it tastes like something out of a box or a can, use cheap ingredients. It's up to you. There's no reason you can't make your own and then customize it to make it your own. My wife likes Velveeta as the primary cheese; I use sharp cheddar in mine. She uses milk, I use milk and cream or half-and-half. We both agree – as do experienced cooks everywhere – that butter is the only way to go. The only use margarine should have in your kitchen is perhaps to grease the hinges on your cabinet doors. And, of course, use the best pasta you can find. De Cecco or Barilla are the best supermarket choices if you don't happen to live next door to an Italian market. As for the method of preparation, that's up to you, too. My wife's not big on baked macaroni and cheese. She prefers to make it on the stovetop. Okay by me. As long as there's macaroni and cheese in it, I like it either way.

Oh, and remember, macaroni is pasta and the only way to properly cook pasta is in lots of water with lots of salt. Doesn't matter if you use imported European butter and organic milk and artisan cheese that costs twenty dollars a pound in the sauce, if your pasta lacks flavor – flavor it can only get from being cooked in aggressively salted water – you might as well be eating the stuff out of the can or the box.

You'll have to excuse me now: I'm really hungry all of a sudden.