By Catharine Kaufman
I’ve been harboring a secret for decades. Now it’s time to unload this culinary confession. Although my mom was an amazing cook, one of my faves growing up was the cheap and chewy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
This iconic staple for the young-at-heart and frugal-minded has grown up and become an extravagant, exotic delicacy. Here’s the skinny on America’s favorite fatty comfort food.
In the beginning
Although Marco Polo is credited with importing pasta to Italy from his voyages to the Far East, food historians used their noodle and attributed the invention of macaroni to the Chinese, along with the Etruscans, Greeks, Romans and Arabs. But it was the Northern Europeans who laid a solid claim to the concoction of macaroni and cheese, the first recorded recipe found in those parts circa 1769. When Thomas Jefferson was stationed in Paris as the U.S. Minister to France, his taste buds went gaga over the exquisite pasta dishes, particularly a creamy combo of elbow-shaped noodles in a cheesy sauce.
Jefferson returned with a mother lode of pasta recipes and a pasta machine! In 1802, at one of his presidential state dinners, he served macaroni and cheese to his guests.
During the Great Depression, Kraft launched its boxed mac and cheese, a gustatory savior that could feed a family of four for 19-cents. This staple has survived the test of time through food rationing during W.W. II, and along with ramen soup, has become entrenched in college cuisine as a dorm delight.
Kraft has tweaked the macaroni shapes to include everything from Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo to Spiderman and spirals, and even comes in an organic version.
Some foodies worldwide are competing to concoct the ultimate mac and cheese with the most grams of fat and sodium, right Paula Dean? The celebrity chef forms mac and cheese balls, wraps them in bacon, then breads and deep fries them. Emeril Lagasse’s version is “kicked up a notch” with roasted garlic, nutmeg and applewood smoked bacon; Giada De Laurentiis bakes mac and cheese muffins and cupcakes, while The Barefoot Contessa’s “Grown up Mac and Cheese” is a blend of cavatappi macaroni, Gruyere, sharp cheddar, blue cheese and basil.
Lobster mac and cheese, not only popular pub grub and food truck fare, is also found on menus of frou-frou eateries. This nouveau comfort food is packed with chunky tail meat and elbow macaroni swimming in a blue cheese, Parmesan, sharp cheddar and lobster stock sauce, finished off with a crunchy panko breadcrumb crust and white truffle oil drizzle.
Other chefs have created a winter white mac and cheese with white cheddar, cauliflower florets, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet white onions and a dash of white pepper.
While gourmand and healthier versions blend Brie or goat cheese with figs and wild mushrooms, blanket the casserole with a layer of Technicolor heirloom tomatoes, or toss in baby Brussels, broccoli florets, chunks of butternut squash and slices of grilled chicken breast.
Care to share your favorite mac and cheese recipe? E-mail me it to firstname.lastname@example.org Check out the food blog at FreeRangeClub.com.
For Adults Only: Mac and Cheese to tantalize and delight
1/2 pound chunky macaroni like large bent tubular chioccciole or spiral-shaped cavatappi
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup diced sweet onion
2 1/2 cups milk
10 to 12 ounces assorted cheeses, shredded (sharp cheddar, baby Swiss, Fontina, Gruyere, goat, your choice)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 tablespoon dried mustard powder
Sea salt and fresh cracked black or cayenne pepper to taste
For the topping:
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350º F. Boil pasta in a large pot of salted water until al dente (chewy, not soft).
While the pasta is boiling, in a saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour and mustard powder until smooth. Add the milk, onion and paprika and simmer on low for 10 minutes. Stir in the cheese, reserving 2 ounces for the topping. Season with salt and pepper or cayenne. Blend in the macaroni and transfer to an oven-safe casserole dish. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
For the topping, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the breadcrumbs, stirring until coated with butter. Top the casserole with the breadcrumbs. Bake for about 30 minutes or until bubbly and brown. Serve with steamed broccoli florets.