Mac and cheese is the ultimate American comfort food. Simple and satisfying, just like Mom used to make. But is mac and cheese really an American dish?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the earliest known recipe for macaroni with cheese comes from Italy. It can be found in a thirteenth century Latin text known as the Liber de Coquina, or ‘book of cooking’, and involves boiling macaroni pasta in water, then tossing it with cheese.
There are a couple of theories as to how the dish travelled to the states, but given that it was already popular in Italy, France and Great Britain by the time Europeans settlers began to arrive in the New World, it would be impossible to say for sure. One theory is that it evolved from a dish called ‘macaroni pudding’, popular at New England church suppers, while another, more popular theory is that it was ‘discovered’ by Thomas Jefferson during a trip to either France or Italy.
While the idea of Jefferson being the first to bring mac and cheese into the country seems a little too good to be true, he certainly seems to have been partly responsible for popularising it. A dinner guest reports that he served ‘a pie called macaroni’ at a state dinner in 1802, and Mary Randolph, a distant cousin of the Jefferson family and sister-in-law to Jefferson’s daughter Martha, included a recipe for ‘macaroni and cheese’ in her influential cookbook, The Virginia Housewife in 1824.
But the dish didn’t really become a household name until 1937, with the introduction of boxed meals. The invention of powdered cheese in 1908 meant that there were no perishable ingredients, making the dish faster and easier to manufacture. In a country that was living through the Great Depression, a box of mac and cheese could feed a family of four for less than twenty cents, and they sold in their millions.
The popularity of boxed mac and cheese continued into the forties, when it was used as an easily portable meal for the troops, providing hungry soldiers with all the calories they needed and a comforting taste of home. In the sixties and seventies, it provided a quick and easy option for busy working moms with limited time on their hands and a hungry family to feed.
These days, mac and cheese is as popular as ever, and is even getting something of a gourmet makeover. With the current fine-dining trend for a more relaxed, informal eating experience, chefs are turning their attention to traditional, comforting American classics and adding that little touch of something extra. Instead of powdered cheese think gruyère or smoked gouda, with luxurious toppings like bacon, lobster or truffles.
Types of Pasta Used for Mac & Cheese
The best pasta to use when making mac and cheese is something with a bit of bite, with a noodle or tubular shape to catch plenty of that delicious, cheesy sauce. A classic mac and cheese should be made with macaroni, which comes in two different varieties - straight macaroni, and elbow macaroni, which is bent in the middle like an elbow. Which you use may come down to your choice of utensil, as the slightly larger size of straight macaroni makes it easier to grab with a fork, while elbow macaroni is easier to scoop up on a spoon.
But if you don’t have any macaroni in your cupboard, or if you just feel like experimenting, there are other types of pasta you can use. For something with added bite, try using a larger tube-shaped pasta. Penne is a longer, thicker version of straight macaroni, while cavatappi (sometimes called ‘Scooby Doo’) is a large, spiral-shaped tube. These larger shapes make a heartier dish, and hold their structure well in the oven, but they do take longer to cook through, so you’ll need to allow for longer cooking time.
Another option is conchiglie, or shell pasta. Conchiglie is a thinner pasta, which makes for a lighter dish, and its shell-like shape is great for holding pools of cheese sauce. It can be a little flimsy, however, so make sure you don’t overcook it.
The Best Cheeses For Mac & Cheese
A classic mac and cheese is made using strong cheddar, which adds a rich, intense flavour, and melts easily to make a smooth, gooey sauce. But there are plenty of other cheeses you can experiment with too. Cheeses with strong flavours like gouda, gruyère, raclette or parmesan all make great mac and cheese, and you can add something with a creamier texture like brie (minus the rind) or goat’s cheese to these stronger flavours for a smoother, silkier sauce.
Burrata Mac & Cheese
For a truly decadent cheese sauce, we love this burrata mac and cheese recipe from Grilled Cheese Social. This luxury mac is made with a mouthwatering combination of cheddar, gruyere, muenster, ricotta, and a secret ingredient - burrata, a creamy, buttery Italian cheese whose flavour has been described as a cross between mozzarella and fresh cream.
Mistakes to Avoid When Making Mac & Cheese
Mac and cheese is a fairly simple dish to make, but there are a few common mistakes to avoid.
If you’re making béchamel sauce from scratch, remember to take your time. Béchamel is made from a simple mixture of oil, flour and milk, but if you add your milk too quickly you can end up with lumps. For a smooth sauce, pour the milk in a little at a time, stirring all the while.
Make sure you add enough cheese on top. Sometimes people leave out the final layer of cheese, thinking that the sauce is cheesy enough, but the cheese layer is essential for sealing moisture inside the dish and stopping it from going dry.
Get your cooking times right. If you leave the dish in the oven for too long it will lose its structure and go mushy. You should remove the mac and cheese from the oven while the pasta is still al dente - you can test it with a fork - as it will continue to cook for a few minutes in the hot cheese sauce.
Resist the temptation to dig straight in as soon as the dish is out of the oven, instead of leaving it to sit for at least fifteen minutes so the sauce can set. If you eat it straight away, your cheese sauce will be too runny, and it will probably burn your mouth, too!
The Ultimate Mac and Cheese Recipe
For the ultimate mac and cheese, try this recipe from chef Antonio Romano, winner of Fine Dining Lovers’ Food for Thought Award for Italy and the South-East Europe Region. Full of the flavours of Italy, this dish is made with a blend of Italian cheeses and topped with crunchy hazelnuts and black summer truffle.
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