Mac and cheese meals can go from simple to special-occasion

July 21, 2023

It would appear I made a reporting error in last week’s column, neglecting to let you know that Friday, July 14 (in addition to being Bastille Day, marking the start of the French Revolution in 1789) was also National Macaroni & Cheese Day, according to the self-styled National Day Calendar. So, to rectify my mistake, today will be all about mac and cheese.

Of course, our first consideration is where the dish originated. Since pasta is one of the main ingredients, it’s an easy guess to look to Italy as the place where this was born. The earliest published recipe appeared in a 14th-century cookbook that instructed the chef to combine cooked pasta with Parmesan cheese. An English version added butter to the cheese and pasta, which were arranged in layers.

By the 18th century, both British and American cookbooks added complexity to the preparation process by whisking together a sauce of cream or milk, cheese and butter to pour over the pasta. Like the version in the photo, a topping of toasted breadcrumbs was often a golden garnish atop the dish. After his stint as U.S. ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson imported the recipe, as well as a machine to form various shapes of pasta.

By the mid-19th century, macaroni and cheese had reached the middle classes as a convenient, filling and affordable meal. During the early 20th century, Kraft introduced a boxed mix for macaroni and cheese, claiming you could “make a meal for four in nine minutes.” It remained a favorite through World War II, when a single food-ration stamp could purchase two boxes of the popular mix.

Today, macaroni and cheese, sometimes called mac & cheese, is found on restaurant menus from casual eateries to upscale destinations. What’s changed is not the basic recipe, but what is added to alter your experience of the familiar dish. One of these I find confusing is the lobster version. Why would you bury this expensive, tender and mild-flavored ingredient that is best showcased gently pried from its shell and served alongside a ramekin of drawn butter?

Another decadent ingredient often found at fancy places is truffles, a type of fungi that grows underground among tree roots and requires pigs to lead truffle-hunters to unearth the prized mushrooms. If you do find a truffle option on the menu, don’t expect to actually be served shaved truffles, but more likely the sauce has been made with truffle oil to provide that characteristic deep, heady flavor.

One popular option is to stir in steamed or roasted vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli or cauliflower. The key to success is to make sure the pieces are not left too large, and they should be barely tender so they don’t become mush in the mix. Although you’re getting a good serving of protein from the cheese, shredded chicken or pulled pork can add even more to your serving of cheesy pasta, along with flavor and texture interest.

A final thought about the specific pasta shape is to choose relatively small types, such as elbows or shells. You’ll want the pasta to be coated completely with the cheese sauce, something more difficult to accomplish with long strands like spaghetti. When preparing macaroni and cheese, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need to bake it unless you want a crisp top crust. Here are two recipes to get you started.

Short Rib Mac & Cheese 
1 1/2 C cooked, shredded short rib meat
8 oz penne pasta
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 C flour
2 C whole milk
8 oz grated white cheddar cheese
4 oz grated gruyere cheese
1/2 t paprika
1/4 C panko breadcrumbs
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta to al dente. Drain pasta and set aside. While pasta cooks, melt the butter over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven. Whisk in the flour to create a roux, cooking until golden and fragrant. Pour in milk, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens; cook about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add all the cheddar and half the gruyere cheese. Cook, stirring constantly, until the cheese melts. Stir in paprika, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cooked pasta and shredded short rib meat, stirring to combine. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and the remaining gruyere cheese. Bake until the top is golden and the cheese is melted, about 15 minutes.

Broccoli Mac & Cheese 
1 lb elbow pasta
2 C broccoli florets
1/2 C unsalted butter
1/2 C flour
1/2 t paprika
1/2 t Dijon mustard 
4 C whole milk
8 oz shredded cheddar cheese
8 oz shredded mozzarella cheese
salt & pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 F. Coat the inside of a 9-by-11-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 minutes, adding broccoli florets for the final 2 minutes. Drain and set aside. While pasta cooks, make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter over medium-low heat; add the flour and whisk until smooth. Cook the roux for a few minutes, stirring often, until slightly darkened in color. Stir in paprika and mustard. Slowly pour in milk, stirring constantly to create a smooth sauce. Bring the mixture to a low simmer, stirring often. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until it has thickened. Reduce heat to low; add both cheeses. Mix well until the cheese is totally melted. Remove from heat, and stir in pasta and broccoli. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish and bake until golden, about 20 minutes. 

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