Macaroni and Cheese

mac and cheeze

Macaroni and cheese, called ‘mac and cheese’ (US, Canada, Australia), ‘macaroni pie’ (Caribbean), or ‘macaroni cheese’ (UK, New Zealand) is a dish consisting of cooked macaroni (durum wheat pasta) and cheese, though it can also incorporate other ingredients, such as bread crumbs, Worcestershire sauce, and a roux (a thickening agent created by cooking wheat flour and fat) such as a bechamel (butter and flour cooked in milk). 

It is possible to make the dish with actual cheese rather than a cheese sauce. It has been suggested that pasta rigati or some other small shell macaroni is an excellent choice for the pasta ingredient due to its ‘pocket’ to hold cheese.

Traditional macaroni and cheese is a casserole baked in the oven; however, it may be prepared in a saucepan on the top of the stove from scratch or using a packaged mix. Pasta and cheese casseroles have been recorded in cookbooks as early as the 14th century’s ‘Liber de Coquina, one of the oldest medieval cookbooks, which describes a French dish of parmesan and pasta that was new to England at the time. A cheese and pasta casserole known as ‘makerouns’ was recorded in a the famous medieval French cookbook ‘The Forme of Cury,’ which was also written in the 14th century. It was made with fresh, hand-cut pasta which was sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese. The recipe given was: ‘Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth.’

The first modern recipe for the dish was included in cookery writer Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book ‘The Experienced French Housekeeper.’ Raffald’s recipe is for a bechamel sauce with cheddar cheese, which is mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with parmesan and baked until bubbly and golden. The famous British Victorian cookbook ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ included two recipes for the dish. One recipe states that ‘The macaroni, (which should be ‘tender but perfectly firm, no part being allowed to melt, and the form entirely preserved’ – lest one be tempted to cook it for so long it actually disintegrated) is then topped with more cheese, pepper and breadcrumbs, before receiving a final dose of melted butter for good measure and being placed before a ‘bright fire’ to brown the crumbs, or grilled with a salamander.’

The future American president Thomas Jefferson encountered macaroni both in Paris and in northern Italy. He drew a sketch of the pasta and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process. In 1793, he commissioned American ambassador to Paris William Short to purchase a machine for making it. Evidently, the machine was not suitable, as Jefferson later imported both macaroni and Parmesan cheese for his use at Monticello. In 1802, Jefferson served a ‘macaroni pie’ at a state dinner. Since that time, the dish has been associated with the United States. A recipe called ‘macaroni and cheese’ appeared in the 1824 cookbook ‘The Virginia Housewife’ written by Mary Randolph. Her recipe had three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together and baked in a 400 °F oven. The book was the most influential cookbook of the 19th century, according to culinary historian Karen Hess. Factory production of the main ingredients made the dish affordable, and recipes made it accessible, but not notably popular. As it became available to a broader section of society, macaroni and cheese lost its upper class appeal. Fashionable restaurants in New York ceased to serve it.

Boston Market, a ready to eat take-out restaurant, and Stouffer’s frozen food, are some of the more recognizable brands of macaroni and cheese available in the US. Macaroni and cheese is also a common side dish among Soul food. One variation consists of the use of shells, three different cheeses, flour, milk, eggs, butter, and various spices. The dish retains its Southern associations and is a common side at barbecue and soul food restaurants, but it has long held its place in higher end Southern establishments and working class cafeterias. One novelty presentation is deep-fried mac and cheese found at fairs and mobile vendors (food carts). A prepared version known as ‘macaroni and cheese loaf’ can be found in some stores.

Packaged versions of the dish are available in frozen form or as a boxed convenience food, consisting of uncooked pasta and either a liquid cheese sauce or powdered ingredients to prepare it. The powdered cheese sauce is mixed with either milk or water, and margarine, butter, or olive oil. In preparing the dish, the macaroni is cooked and drained, then mixed with the cheese sauce. These products are prepared in a microwave, in a stove pot, or baked in an oven, often with any of the extra ingredients mentioned above.

A variety of packaged mixes which are prepared on the top of the stove in a sauce pan are available. They are usually modeled on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (known as ‘Kraft Dinner’ in Canada), which was introduced in 1937 with the slogan ‘make a meal for four in nine minutes.’ It was an immediate success in the US and Canada amid the economic hardships of the Depression. During the Second World War, rationing led to increased popularity for the product because two boxes could be obtained for one food rationing stamp. The 1953 Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook includes a recipe for the dish with Velveeta (a processed cheese), which had been reformulated in that year. The boxed Kraft product is immensely popular in Canada, where it is the most-purchased grocery item in the country.

A similar traditional dish in Switzerland is called ‘Älplermagronen’ (‘Alpine herder’s macaroni’), which is also available in boxed versions. Älplermagronen are made of macaroni, cream, cheese, roasted onions, and in some recipes potatoes. In the Canton of Uri, the potatoes are traditionally omitted, and in some regions, bacon or ham is added. The cheese is often Emmental cheese or Appenzeller cheese.

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