This time of year we teach adult education classes here at Living History Farms and the cooking classes are amongst the most popular. Last week’s class consisted of classic comfort foods. Pizza and ice cream seem to be among the favorites from the informal poll I took of everyone. A favorite here on the farm and one of the quintessential American comfort foods, especially during the cool winter days, is macaroni and cheese.
It doesn’t matter if you are 5 or 75, the thought of a warm bowl of cheesy goodness may invoke memories of childhood or warmth. This food comes in all flavors, shapes and sizes. The debate over the best macaroni and cheese continues to rage and I don’t think there will ever be an answer. Some people prefer their noodles in a runny roux while others prefer a stiffer version of the classic. Cheese preferences range from hard to soft, orange to white, and pretty much everything in between. Macaroni and cheese traces it’s origins to the Italian peninsula and hand-rolled pasta. This site offers an interesting documented treatise on this history of macaroni, and a comment on macaroni and cheese in particular. It speaks of how the dish may have been brought back to America by Thomas Jefferson.
No matter the origin, macaroni and cheese existed long before Kraft debuted the blue box that children know today. In fact, when it began in 1937, the Kraft box was more yellow than blue and did well during the depression. To see that box visit the Kraft foods website. The box was marketed as “A meal for 4… in 9 minutes” and cost 19 cents. In popular culture, the boxed macaroni and cheese dinner has made an everlasting mark on generations of consumers. Now in different colors and shapes, and able to be cooked in the microwave, toddlers and college students alike each this product regularly.
Still, we know this delightful dish existed way before a blue box brought it into popular culture. It was a staple of southern cuisine, but enjoyed by all. Recipes abound for different version of the food, most of the older ones being rather vague allowing the cook to choose his or her own method. A popular cookbook from the 19th Century entitled The Virginia Housewife is from 1824 and holds a recipe for macaroni and cheese. I thought I would share a few with you:
Baked Macaroni With Cheese
Put a layer of boiled macaroni in buttered baking dish, sprinkle with grated cheese; repeat, pour over White Sauce, cover with buttered crumbs, and bake until crumbs are brown.
– from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook 1896 version, pg 90-91
Maccaroni and Cheese
Break half a pound of maccaroni into pieces an inch or two long; cook it in boiling water enough to cover it well; put in a good teaspoonful of salt’ let it boil about twenty minutes. Drain it well, and then put a layer in the bottom of a well-buttered pudding-dish, upon this some grated cheese, and small pieces of butter, a bit of salt, then more maccaroni, and so on, filling the dish; sprinkle the top layer with a thick layer of cracker-crumbs. Pour over the whole a teacupful of cream or milk. Set in the oven and bake half an hour. It should be nicely browned on top. Serve in the same dish in which it was baked, with a clean napkin pinned around it.
–from The Original White House Cook Book 1887, pg 192
Macaroni, as usually served with the Cheese Course
INGREDIENTS – 1/2 lb. of pipe macaroni, 1/4 lb. of butter, 6 oz. of Parmesan or Cheshire cheese, pepper and salt to taste, 1 pint of milk, 2 pints of water, bread crumbs.
Mode.—Put the milk and water into a saucepan with sufficient salt to flavour it; place it on the fire, and, when it boils quickly, drop in the macaroni. Keep the water boiling until it is quite tender; drain the macaroni, and put it into a deep dish. Have ready the grated cheese, either Parmesan or Cheshire; sprinkle it amongst the macaroni and some of the butter cut into small pieces, reserving some of the cheese for the top layer. Season with a little pepper, and cover the top layer of cheese with some very fine bread crumbs. Warm, without oiling, the remainder of the butter, and pour it gently over the bread crumbs. Place the dish before a bright fire to brown the crumbs; turn it once or twice, that it may be equally coloured, and serve very hot. The top of the macaroni may be browned with a salamander, which is even better than placing it before the fire, as the process is more expeditious; but it should never be browned in the oven, as the butter would oil, and so impart a very disagreeable flavour to the dish. In boiling the macaroni, let it be perfectly tender but firm, no part beginning to melt, and the form entirely preserved. It may be boiled in plain water, with a little salt instead of using milk, but should then have a small piece of butter mixed with it.
– from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861
As you can see, there are several different variations on the same general concept. We have pieced together several of these old recipes into one more modern recipe that is delicious. It is served sometimes at our 1875 dinners. This recipe is a little easier to follow if you are not up to Mrs. Beeton’s challenge.
Cook and drain 1 lb. Tube Macaroni. Place hot macaroni in a mixing bowl. Stir in:
2 cups Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated
1 cup Mild Cheddar Cheese, grated
½ cup Parmesan Cheese, grated
4 Tbls. Butter
½ cup Sour Cream
½ tsp. Pepper
1 tsp. Dry Mustard
In a small bowl beat 1 egg and 2 cups milk well. Add to macaroni mixture. Place mixture into a greased baking dish. Bake covered, approximately 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Mix 1 Tbls. melted butter, with ½ cup breadcrumbs and 2 Tbls. Parmesan cheese. Pour this topping over macaroni. Garnish with a handful of sharp cheddar cheese, if desired and bake 10 minutes longer, until lightly browned.
– Adapted from recipes in Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861, The Presbyterian Cook Book, 1875 and Buckeye Cookery 1877.
Versions of these casserole style macaroni and cheese dishes have been staple comfort foods at dinner tables and church potlucks for quite some time. It is also a handy recipe to consider if you are observing meatless days during the Lenten season. It doesn’t matter if you prefer elbows, shells, or tube macaroni, I hope you enjoy one of our favorite comfort foods from the farm.