Growing up there was no such thing as “pasta.” On Sunday we had one of two things, spaghetti or macaroni. (Lasagna and ravioli were only for holidays.) Spaghetti was what children sometimes called “strings” which is exactly what spaghetti means. Macaroni (macaronis -pl.) was different thing all together and was actually far more common for Sunday dinner. Macaroni could be baked ziti, shells (usually with peas or ceci beans) rigatoni or what we called “twistettis.”
Macaroni and Cheese may be the quintessential American comfort food. Like many comfort foods around the world the recipe for this dish is as varied as the number of people who make it. Like all other comfort foods around the world the best version is the version your mother made. Of course, for some people (too many I fear) what their mother made came out of a box with a pouch of orange powder whose origins are better left unexplored. While these folks may be more than happy with their notion of macaroni and cheese, all I can say is “ignorance is bliss.”
where Even if the cheese did not come from powder in a box, the cheddar was usually orange. Orange cheese does not occur in nature. From what little information I have found it seems that in England orange coloring was added to the cheese as early as the mid-19th century. For some reason, people seem attracted to this unnatural color. Of course the practice continues. In the South where mac and cheese is staple food it is very difficult to find white American cheese in the grocery store. Down there it's all died orange.
With the boxed stuff left to the world of the unwashed masses, let’s look at the real thing. Real macaroni and cheese is made with real cheese.
The word “macaroni” has a most interesting history. In Italian it is spelled “maccheroni” and refers to a pasta made only with water and durum wheat. There are no eggs. Unlike “spaghetti” (little strings) maccheroni are tubular or other extruded shapes. The word comes from the Greek “Μακαρώνεια “ (mah-kah-RON-aye-ah). The Greek seems to have two possible origins. The first is that it refers to a pasta made from barely, the other is that it comes from the name of the goddess Makaria, (Μακαρία). Makaria was the goddess of a blessed death. The funeral meal was therefore a kind of pasta called “makaroneia.” Even today in the Greek Orthodox Church the “makaria” the “mercy meal,” is served after a funeral.
The English “macaroni” dates from the 16th century and is a mishearing of the Italian “maccheroni.” In England “Macaronis” was the name for social dandies. Its use in the song “Yankee Doodle,” “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni,” was a taunt of British soldiers who were mocking the Americans. The taunt suggested that the Yankee troupes thought that they could make themselves look important by putting a feather in their caps.
To add yet another dimension to the complex history if this word, “maccheroni” is also the origin of the word “macaroon,” the delicate almond paste cookie which these days in Italian are called “amaretti.”
As most folks know “macaroni and cheese” was introduced in America by Thomas Jefferson who served it at Monticello after having encountered it in Naples. “The best maccaroni in Italy is made with a particular sort of flour called Semola, in Naples.”
As one of Jefferson’s guest noted.
"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. 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."[
William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkins Cutler, Life Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler (Cincinnati, 1888),
Back in the day my mother's basic recipe was still rather simple. The cheddar was the only cheese in the recipe. On occasion my mother may have used a bit of parmesan left over from Sunday dinner. But there was certainly no other cheese included. To render the cheese a bit more fluid a béchamel of milk and butter and flour served as the base. The limited and simple recipe kept our family macaroni and cheese in line with the macaroni and cheese of any other American family.
The significant difference in our macaroni and cheese from American macaroni and cheese was the type of pasta. We rarely had elbow macaroni. My mother used shells, “conchiglie.” Then too, even though my mother was of Irish roots, she clearly adopted my father’s Italian side when it came to the kitchen. Our macaroni and cheese very often had the Neapolitan addition of green peas.
An Interview with my Mother (age 90)
I asked my mother who is now ninety about how she made macaroni and cheese for us when we were kids in the 1950’s and 60's.”
Me: “How did you make macaroni and cheese?”
Mom: “Well, first I made the cream sauce, then I melted the cheese.
Me: “Cream sauce… you mean like a béchamel?”
Mom: “Yes, the regular butter and flour and milk.”
Me:“What kinds of macaroni did you use?”
Mom: “I used elbow macaroni, the way you see.”
Me:“Did you ever use shells?
Mom: “Oh, yes, I used to make it with shells too.”
Me:“I remember shells, but I don’t remember it with elbow macaroni.”
Mom: “Yes, I used shells.”
Me: “what kind of cheese did you use, orange or white?”
Mom: “Oh white, I always used white; never orange. When Daddy bought it, he always bought slices, but I used to buy a block and shred it.”
Me: “But I remember blocks of orange cheese in the refrigerator.”
Mom: “I never used that for macaroni and cheese.”
Me: “What about bread crumbs?
Mom: “No, I never liked bread crumbs. I know a lot or people used them. But I didn’t like them. I don’t like them with stewd tomatoes either. People used to cover macaroni and cheese with stewed tomatoes.”
Me: “Yeh, I do remember that. They served it that way for lunch at Saint Aloysius Academy when I was in kindergarten: a bad memory that I suppressed.”
Mom: “The old restaurants served them that way: Horn and Hardart’s, Linton’s.”
Me: “What about peas? Did you add peas? I remember peas in the macaroni.”
Mom:”No, peas were for something else. I don’t remember…..”
Me: “Pasta cheech. You put them in pasta cheech because we didn’t like the dry chick peas. But remember them in macaroni and cheese too.”
Mom: “Maybe I did. Who can remember?”
What do we remember? What do we, in the storehouse of our recollections and imagination, create and transform into what we think is memory? In many ways, memory is a recipe created by a touch of this and pinches of that created for the dish as hand, just as a good recipe is a wonderful memory of glimpse of this and a flash of that called up at the moment.
These days I think some changes can be made to the mac and cheese recipe. The cheeses I use here are all on the mild and creamy side. I have used a combination of Fontina, mozarella, provola, pecorino Romano and ricotta impastata. (Note: do not use grocery store ricotta. For a ricotta impastata substitute use mascarpone or even Philly Cream Cheese.) The cheese I have use are far less piquant than American cheddar. I also suggest turning them slighly into the sauce so that each type of cheese can show up as an individual taste on the pasta.
For a more vibrant taste, use a wedge of Gorgonzola and some sharp English or Irish cheddar. Experiment. Real mac and cheese is very easy and takes little time.
Macaroni and cheese also benefits from other additions. For a spicy version add finely chopped jalapenos or a few dashes of ground chili pepper. You can also add meat by including some diced ham. And a handful of peas adds color and texture. If the cheese is too mild, add a shake or two of Worcestershire Sauce. I do not hesitate to add a bit of left over ricotta cheese. A drizzle of olive oil just before serving adds another dimension. The point here is to do what you like, add the cheeses, you like, the spices you like,
In the end, macaroni and cheese is a very easy, very satisfying dish that benefits from individual additions and personal preferences. Whether you use nothing more than plain cheddar or attempt any number of cheese variations, the combination of melting cheese and starchy pasta induces the most delightful delirium of food coma imaginable.
Jefferson's plan for a macaroni extruding machine
What you need