A Brief History of Macaroni and Cheese

February 27, 2011

Hi, this is Piña Colada, back for one last blog post!

In my family, my mom has always made the meals, while Dad does the dishes. However, for as long as I can remember, mac cheese has been Dad’s specialty. This mac cheese doesn’t come from a box for a quick meal, and in fact, I didn’t even know you could get boxed macaroni until I was in elementary school. Dad’s mac cheese was made totally from scratch and I couldn’t give you the secret family recipe even if I wanted to, because there is no measurement involved.

As a kid, I wouldn’t even eat box macaroni when it was served at other houses. To me, it was unfathomable why anyone would eat that disgusting version of the dish when there was Dad’s kind. I loved it and asked for it every year for my birthday dinner. Over time, I realized that not everyone’s Dad had a secret mac cheese recipe, and so gradually I came to accept box macaroni, however, Dad’s will always be the best.

When it came time to pick a recipe for my final cooking project, I choose the baked macaroni because I love pasta. However, I quickly realized that I was going to serve this baked macaroni to Dad, the master of mac cheese. Gulp.

 

My counter overflowing with my mise-en-place.

As I planned my mise-en-place and looked over the ingredients list, I realized that we had no Pecorino or Gruyere cheese, so I decided to substitute in a Mexican blend cheese, and switch the type of pasta to avoid a last minute shopping run. My dad and sister were gone for the day at a volleyball tournament, and Mom retreated to the back to play cello and be on-call to take pictures, leaving me alone in the kitchen.

Preheating the oven to 375.

It was about 5:30 when I finally started getting out my utensils and ingredients, which took over the whole counter. Grating the cheese, ripping the bread, and measuring everything out was incredibly time consuming, and so it was at least 6:00 by the time I finally got around to actually cooking anything.

Heating the milk with a smile!

The first step was buttering the bread crumbs, which required me to brave our sometimes persnickety gas stove. It cooperated, though, and I was given a confidence boost when I melted the butter without incident. Next came the hardest steps: I had to make a roux, a skill I only understood in theory. I added in the flour, and it clumped nicely, but I had a minor freak-out moment when I realized I had already cooked the roux for a minute and didn’t have the required picture. I turned the heat off, sprinted to the back, got Mom to take the picture, and then realized I had to keep cooking the roux with the milk. Oh, well.

Me stirring my roux.

I added the milk, and attempted to whisk continuously, but I kept getting distracted by the water I was boiling for pasta.

The steam coming from my boiling pasta water.

I was supposed to be watching for bubbles and a thickening of the sauce. I kept stirring and stirring, but nothing seemed to be happening.

Epic continuous whisking.

I had almost given up, decided it was as thick as it was going to get, and moved on when I noticed that if I stopped stirring for just a bit, the mixture would bubble and I also began to skim a thicker layer off the bottom of the skillet. Thus reassured, I continued whisking, and sure enough, the mixture did seem to thicken, just very slowly…

Stirring the spices into my sauce--such pretty colors!

The pasta finished up just after the sauce and was underdone to perfection. Carefully avoiding steam burns, I drained it, and then managed to transfer it into the cheese sauce without a splash.

Lots of steam as I drain the pasta.

I added the extra cheese, and carefully slid my creation into the oven to bake.

Carefully pouring the macaroni into the baking dish.

At about this point, the camera decided to have a ‘memory card error,’ forcing me to frantically review alternative options for picture taking. I at last settled on the video camera stills, concluding that blurry pictures were better than none at all.

Baking in the oven--doesn't it look amazing?!

Of course, the part the recipe leaves out is the clean up. I had hoped to read and relax during the baking step, but instead I was running around trying to rinse the sticky cheese sauce out of things before it set. Not my favorite part of cooking.

So many dishes to wash....

While waiting, I also made a salad dressing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for my salad. When the timer went off, I removed the baked macaroni from the oven. Since it was now after seven, and I was ready to eat, I decided it was done.

My awesome French salad dressing.

As it turns out, this dish will never beat Dad’s original mac cheese, but is a different type of macaroni and quite good in its own right. I was the only one who got to try the dish that night, but my sister, Dad, and Oreo approved the next night.

 

My dinner all ready to eat--at last!

Here’s the recipe so you can try it for yourself:

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 12 (You can easily divide this recipe in half; use a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish if you do.)

Ingredients:

6 slices good-quality white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces (note: I didn’t actually use this much bread, just because I wanted less bread and more pasta)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for dish

5 1/2 cups milk

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar

2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyere (can substitute Swiss) or 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) grated pecorino Romano (this is where I substituted 1 ¼ cups Mexican blend cheese)

1 pound elbow macaroni (I actually used Piccolini, it really doesn’t make a difference)

Tada! My final macaroni dish.

Directions:

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place bread pieces in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour butter into the bowl with bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, heat milk. Melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When butter bubbles, add flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.

2. Slowly pour hot milk into flour-butter mixture while whisking. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick.

3. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyere or 1 cup pecorino Romano. Set cheese sauce aside.

4. Fill a large saucepan with water. Bring to a boil. Add macaroni; cook 2 to 3 fewer minutes than manufacturer’s directions, until outside of pasta is cooked and inside is underdone. (Different brands of macaroni cook at different rates; be sure to read the instructions.) Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.

5. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar and 1/2 cup Gruyere or 1/4 cup pecorino Romano; scatter breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes; serve.

If I were to make this dish again, I would leave out the nutmeg because it gave the pasta a sweeter flavor that reminded me too much of cooked apples.

I really have a new appreciation of all the work my mom does in the kitchen. Given how long it took me to make one dish, I don’t know how she feeds us all, every night. While I don’t think I’ll be volunteering to cook dinner again anytime soon, I feel that through this trimester, I have become a lot more confident in the kitchen. It will be sad when the elective ends and I won’t have any more yummy foods to supplement my lunches! This is Piña Colada, over and out.

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