A Brief History of Macaroni and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is considered the ultimate comfort food throughout the United States. Like many classic American dishes, our mac and cheese is of English origin, brought to America by our English colonists. But, it is said that macaroni, a curved, tubular pasta made from flour, had its origins in China and was brought to Italy by Marco Polo. In Italian homes, macaroni has been cooked and served with cheese for over 500 years.
In my family, homemade macaroni and cheese was a dish that my mother created only when we had leftover cheese from other meals. That’s how frugal Yankee families operated – you would never go out and buy a couple pounds of cheese just to make this delectable dish. So my mom, like most moms, relied on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in a box – my siblings and I loved it, and it certainly was economical for a big family.
Kraft Macaroni and Cheese hit the grocery store shelves in the U.S. and Canada in 1937, and became a huge success. The timing of the product’s launch had much to do with this. During World War II, rationing of milk and dairy products, an increased reliance on meatless entrees, and more women working outside the home, created a captive market for the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, which was considered a hearty meal for families. Its shelf life of ten months was attractive at a time when many Canadian and American homes still did not have refrigerators.
One of the first actual recipes for macaroni and cheese appeared in the 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife written by Mary Randolph. Randolph’s recipe had just three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together in a casserole dish, and baked in a 400 degree oven. Today’s mac and cheese, however, is created using a cream sauce, and then adding shredded or cubed cheese to the pot, and stirring it over a low flame until the cheese is melted. You would then pour the sauce over the cooked macaroni in a casserole dish, sprinkle on some toasted bread crumbs, and bake until hot and bubbly.
Easier said than done, because when I first started making mac and cheese from scratch, it was never creamy or cheesy enough. It took me years of experimenting with different recipes to get the outcome I wanted. So here are a few tips I learned to make my macaroni and cheese the very best it can be. First of all, you want to use good cheese. Extra sharp cheddar is my favorite for this dish, but you can use any of your favorite cheeses, and even mix up the varieties. But do not use American cheese or Velveeta in this dish, under any circumstances. Another tip is to cook the macaroni until it’s al dente – don’t overcook it because it will become mushy after baking. And here is the most important tip of all – after you’ve made your cheese sauce, stir the macaroni in a little bit at a time until it’s reached the right consistency. You want it to be super creamy and cheesy before you pour it into the baking dish. If you add too much macaroni, your casserole can become dried out as it bakes.
If you’ve been eating boxed macaroni and cheese all these years, this is the time to start making it from scratch.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan with onion. Add flour and whisk on medium low heat until flour is "cooked." This is a roux, but you don't want it to brown. It should be yellow in color.
Slowly add half and half and sherry, stirring all the while, until the mixture becomes thick. You may want to turn the heat up a bit but be sure not to let the sauce boil and be sure to keep whisking.
Add salt and pepper, and then the shredded cheese, stirring until melted. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Remove sauce from heat. Slowly add the macaroni, stirring until the mixture is thick and creamy. You may not need all the macaroni - you are looking for a very cheesy mixture.
Pour the macaroni and cheese into a greased casserole dish. Top with buttered or toasted bread crumbs, or crushed potato chips. Bake at 350 degrees until hot and bubbly. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.