Today’s mac and cheese has evolved from elbow noodles and Cheddar to upscale creative versions
Macaroni and cheese is as American as hot dogs, burgers and apple pie. You would be hard-pressed to find a citizen in any part of the country that has not spooned up the creamy cheesy dish at least once, with most developing a fondness or downright addiction for the rich dish in early childhood. For many parents, the pasta and cheese dish was the original easy-to-make, nutritious fast food that the whole family could enjoy in just a matter of minutes.
The convenience of melting and blending cheeses into bake or boil pasta has been around for centuries. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that, in Southern Italy, recipes mixing cheese with pasta date back to the late 13th century.
One of America’s founding fathers is credited with serving “macaroni cheese pie” at a dinner party in 1802. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson tasted a version of cheese and pasta in France and liked it so much that he requested a version of the dish be served to his guests. This example is said to be the first known introduction of mac and cheese in America. Years later in 1824, Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph, wrote a cookbook “The Virginia Housewife” that included the American version of macaroni and cheese.
The dish has reincarnated into many forms since its introduction to the states, from colonial dinner party entrées to fast food box mixes to gourmet versions with additions like truffle oil. Yet, it has always been considered comfort food and an uncomplicated dish to prepare that pleases just about everyone.
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Erin Wade and Allison Arevalo, owners of Homeroom Restaurant in Oakland, CA, are so ardent about macaroni and cheese that they designed a whole menu of flavorful options focusing on the one dish.
According to the pair, people of all ages and backgrounds have deep connections to macaroni and cheese, and they rightly assumed there were lots of people out there who felt the same way. There are at least 12 variations of macaroni and cheese dishes on the dine-in menu at any one time, with even an add-in toppings menu for those that want to build their own tasty version.
Like many restaurants these days, the owners like to emphasize local ingredients, including cheeses. Homeroom’s Chèvre is from Laura Chenel in Sonoma; the orange and smoked Cheddars and Monterey Jack are from Rumiano in Willows and the cream cheese is by Pacific Cheeses based out of Reno and distributed by Hayward.
Now, just about any cheese can be blended into a batch of macaroni, but it takes some experimenting to get the types, amounts and flavor enhancements just right. Classic macaroni and cheese is made with a sharp Cheddar cheese that gives it a tangy taste. For most of us, this classic version is what we grew up on. In college, the box variety was a constant mainstay in our pantry. It was cheap and good. To make it “gourmet” my roommates cut up hot dogs to ensure a more hearty meal. Suffice it to say, I’ve since graduated from the hot dog version and upped my game to even more gourmet enhancements, which of course, includes more exciting varieties of cheese.
In Durango, CO, Steamworks Brewery Restaurant pairs their beers with hearty Southwestern versions of macaroni and cheese for a winning combination. There are five cheeses mixed into their customer favorite Green Chile and Bacon Macaroni and Cheese recipe, which are Cheddar, Gruyère, Asiago, Fontina and Monterey Jack. Executive chef Sean Clark says that it “was a trial and error effort adding different cheeses, until everybody on the staff agreed which was the best.” When asked why so many cheeses are included, Clark responds, “Just like a group of instruments in a rock band, each cheese brought a different quality to the sauce. More cowbell!”
An added enhancement in his recipe are the Hatch green chiles, which are grown in the Southwest and readily available. The possibility of diners discovering them in just about any sort of dish anywhere is high in Durango country. Clark likes to use them in the cheese sauce to spice it up a notch. He suggests pairing a Lizard Head Red beer from the brewery with the mac and cheese and adds that the “malt plays a role by helping calm the spice on the palate from the Hatch chiles. There is also plenty of carbonation to cleanse the tongue of the richness from the cheese and leave you anxious for the next bite.”
Added ingredients aren’t necessary to make macaroni and cheese, but they do boost the taste and, in many instances, create a more localized flavor profile of the dish.
A customer favorite at Homeroom Restaurant is the Gilroy Garlic Mac, made with local fresh garlic from Gilroy, CA mixed into butter with Gouda and Pecorino. In the Northeast Atlantic states, you can find chunks of fresh-from-the-ocean lobster or crab in your mac and cheese. In the Midwest, you might be delighted to dig into chunky savory brats blended into this creamy dish. The additions are endless and are only limited by taste and imagination.
What a good mac and cheese dish really comes down to is the blending of the perfect cheeses, milk and butter binding easily with the pasta.
For the owners of Homeroom Restaurant, original recipes were developed over many months of testing. Hundreds of batches were made. They tried different combinations of cheese, ratios of sauce to pasta, varied spices and even different noodle shapes. For instance, if using bold- flavored additions like sriracha, a more mild and easily melted young cheese would be used like Havarti and Jack.
The owners and restaurant team discovered that the more aged a cheese is, the more deep cheesy flavor it provides the dish. For instance, in the White Cheddar Mac, a more aged, seven-year Wisconsin white Cheddar strikes a balance between malty, creamy, tangy and sharp. In their testing, they also discovered that hard cheeses like Pecorino and Parmesan should be used in smaller quantities, mostly for flavor and because they don’t melt as well. Multiple cheeses are used in most of their macs, where one cheese provides a specific flavor and the other adds a creamy, cheesy texture for the ultimate taste sensation.
When asked which is her favorite variation, Arevalo enthusiastically stated, “Crab Mac. It tastes like a giant crab cake covered in creamy, buttery cheese.”
Suffice it to say, classic or enhanced, a bowl of creamy steamy mac and cheese can always fill the void in a hungry stomach and provide comfort. It’s a side staple at many a barbecue restaurant, providing a creamy tangy alternative to the sauce’s spice. It’s a favorite side dish at backyard grilling parties and on just about every children’s menu.
Most importantly, it’s an easy meal to make where you can add or subtract ingredients depending on your tastes, what’s in your pantry shelf, and using grocery market cheeses and imported cheeses. You’ll find mac and cheese all across the U.S. states in different variations that make it one of the most adaptable foods found anywhere. It’s an American original.
Green Chile & Bacon Macaroni & Cheese
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Executive Chef Sean Clark
Yield: Recipe makes 6 generous portions.
24 oz dried macaroni
1 cup heavy cream
0.5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1.5 Tbsp flour
5 oz Cheddar cheese
1 oz Gruyère cheese
1 oz Asiago cheese
1 oz Fontina cheese
1 tsp kosher salt
1/3 tsp ground dried mustard
¼ tsp ground white pepper
1 tsp garlic salt
1/3 tsp course ground black pepper
6 oz Jack cheese
9 oz diced cooked bacon
4.5 oz diced green chiles
Cook dried noodles in water until al dente. Drain and reserve.
Heat milk and cream together in saucepan, but do not boil.
In a separate sauce pan, melt butter then mix in flour to form a roux. Allow mixture to cook over medium heat, stirring con-
stantly for a minute, making sure not to allow roux to turn brown.
Slowly add milk, whisking constantly over medium heat.
Once mixture begins to thicken, reduce heat to low and add Cheddar, Gruyère, Asiago and Fontina cheese along with salt, mustard, white and black and pepper and garlic salt. Whisk constantly over medium low heat until cheese has fully melted and sauce is uniform in texture. Remove from heat.
Sauce can be cooled and refrigerated or used immediately.
To complete mac and cheese, add noodles to sauce pan along with sauce and heat over medium heat stirring constantly. Once mixture is hot, toss in Jack cheese, bacon and green chile. Once cheese has melted, the dish is complete.
Mac the Goat
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Yield: Serves 4
½ lb dried elbow pasta (we like big ones with ridges!)
2 cups mac sauce (see accompanying recipe)
6 oz fresh goat cheese (Chevré), crumbled
½ cup Jack cheese, grated
4 green onions (green and light green parts), sliced
½ cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
2 Tbsp olive oil for drizzling
Beer pairing: Saison
Wine pairing: Pinot Noir
Make the Mac Sauce (see following recipe).
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cook pasta in salted boiling water until it’s a little less than al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain pasta again. This is to keep pasta from overcooking.
Add the Mac Sauce, goat cheese, Jack cheese and green onions to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cook over low heat until the goat cheese is barely melted, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the cooked pasta, and heat just until the pasta is warm while stirring continuously.
Spoon the mac into a 14-inch ovenproof casserole and sprinkle with panko. Bake until bubbly, about 10 minutes.
Spoon into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and enjoy! If you’re feeling creative, you can add things like mushrooms, peas or grilled chicken.
BÉCHAMEL (MAC) SAUCE
Makes 3 cups
8 Tbsp unsalted butter
8 Tbsp flour
3 cups whole milk
2 tsp kosher salt
Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat until it just starts to bubble, but is not boiling, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat
Heat the butter over medium heat in a thick-walled pot. When the butter has just melted, add the flour and whisk constantly until mixture turns light brown, about 3 minutes.
Turn the heat off on the butter-flour mixture. Slowly pour in the warm milk, about one cup at a time, into the butter-flour mixture, whisking constantly. It will get very thick when you first add the milk, and thinner as you slowly pour in the entire 3 cups. This is normal.
Once all the milk has been added, set the pot back over medium-high heat and continue to whisk constantly. In the next 2 to 3 minutes, the sauce should come together and become silky and thick. Use the spoon test to make sure it’s ready: Dip a metal spoon into the sauce—if the sauce coats the spoon and doesn’t slide off like milk, you’ll know it’s ready. You should be able to run your finger along the spoon and have the impression remain. Add the salt.
The Mac Sauce is ready to use immediately and does not need to cool. Store it in the fridge for a day or two if you want to make it ahead of time—it will get a lot thicker when put in the fridge, so it may need a little milk to thin it out a bit when it comes time to melt in the cheese. Try melting the cheese into the sauce first, and if it is too thick then add milk as needed.