Growing up, Mom usually made the simple version: pasta and melted cheddar.
It was super-basic. But as a kid I loved the rich creaminess and tang of the sharp cheese – along with the simplicity. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the dish usually includes more than two ingredients.
No matter how you make it, macaroni and cheese is an American staple. And during the throes of midwinter’s dreariest days, the velvety classic is particularly comforting.
“I think everybody can relate to it,” said Branden Moreau, executive chef at Spokane’s No-Li Brewhouse, which serves a spicy but approachable version with andouille sausage.
During the last decade, gourmet macaroni and cheese has been cropping up on restaurant menus. The traditional Southern side and favorite childhood fare has been re-imagined for more sophisticated palates.
“Chefs who grew up eating it as kids are putting their own spins on it,” said Moreau, 28.
In some of the more extreme – and gimmicky – dishes, mac and cheese has been stuffed into burritos or fried into buns or patties for burgers. Who knows how long those variations will last? But, it looks like more refined variations might be here for the long haul.
“They’re really popular right now,” said Steve Jensen, 30, a chef at Spokane’s Manito Tap House, where – sometimes – customers order mac ’n’ cheese as an entrée, with a side order of mac ’n’ cheese.
The restaurant serves three versions: green chili, blackened and basic (for the children’s menu).
“I think a lot of chefs are getting past the pretentious, everything-has-to-be-fine-dining-French cuisine to be considered good food,” Jensen said. “If you use great techniques and great ingredients to make something really simple like mac ’n’ cheese, it’s better than what we had as kids. It’s not often you get to have something better than the (source of the) nostalgia was. It fills your heart as much as it fills your stomach.”
Several recent single-subject cookbooks in the past two years have helped cement the trend. In late 2013, Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord released “Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese,” reinventing the once-down-home dish with artisanal cheeses, upscale ingredients and unexpected combinations. The same year saw the publication of at least three other mac and cheese books: “The Mac + Cheese Cookbook” by Allison Arevelo and Erin Wade, “Mac ’n’ Cheese to the Rescue” by Kristen Kuchar and the simply titled “Mac ’n’ Cheese” by Laura Washburn.
Most recipes start with a basic roux – butter and flour – to which milk or cream is added for bechamel. Mixing in cheese makes a mornay sauce.
Mom skipped these steps. She didn’t bake her macaroni and cheese nor top it with bread crumbs. She just boiled pasta on the stovetop, then stirred shredded cheddar into the warm shells or elbows until it melted, then called it good.
Even though it was elementary, it never, ever came out of a box. Boxed macaroni and cheese was a discovery made during early teenage baby-sitting jobs.
It wasn’t the same.
But it had been around – and reliable and loved by many – for decades. Kraft launched its boxed macaroni and cheese in 1937, and it quickly became a popular way to feed a family on the cheap near the end of the Great Depression. That remained the case throughout World War II, when fresh meat and other pantry items were in short supply.
In the 1990s, “When I grew up, my mom put hot dogs in my macaroni and cheese,” Moreau said, noting they were of the boxed and packaged Kraft and Ball Park varieties.
These days, at No-Li as well as at home for the dish he serves his own kids, Moreau uses Tillamook smoked cheddar, heavy cream and a special scratch-made spice paste.
Either way, “I think it’s important it’s rich and creamy,” he said. “I think every chef should have a macaroni and cheese in their repertoire. It’s fun to do.”
Macaroni and cheese traces its roots to Italy. Variations became more commonplace in this country with the arrival of Italian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. By then, the dish was already gaining traction. Thomas Jefferson had helped popularize it in America, serving macaroni and cheese at the White House in 1802. Mary Randolph, a relative of the president, included a mac and cheese recipe in her 1824 book “The Virginia Housewife.” It was boiled, then baked, and included four ingredients: pasta, salt, cheese and butter.
Macaroni and cheese can be made more elegant with ingredients like figs, candied bacon, truffles, lobster, crab or a sprinkling of paprika and fresh herbs. It can also be dressed down, like Mom’s two-ingredient version, and used as a vehicle for kids to get their veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, kale, peas, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts.
There are smoky, spicy, Southwest and “skinny” recipes – along with thousands that proclaim to be the “ultimate” and include secret ingredients like specialty cheeses. (Smoked Gouda or Cougar Gold, anyone?) In late 2014, “Saveur: The New Classics Cookbook” recommended a combination of Velveeta – Velveeta! – along with sharp white cheddar, Gruyere and blue cheese crumbles.
“Personally, I wouldn’t do blue,” Moreau said. “You can do Gouda. Parmesan always works. White cheddar is good. You can use any type of cheddar or aged cheese. Goat cheese can be added, but I would say don’t do straight goat cheese.”
No matter the cheese – or whether the preparation is sophisticated or simple – macaroni and cheese is gooey, melty and multipurpose. It warms, fills and cheers people up. Macaroni and cheese helps people deal with life.
“There’s a little gluttony to it,” said Travis Dickinson, 33, executive chef at Clover in Spokane. “It’s fatty and terrible for you.”
It’s also oh-so-satisfying.
Baked or stovetop
There are two main approaches.
Baked versions feature a browned crust often made more crispy with bread crumbs. Stovetop comes together faster and is generally more velvety.
“Both have their place in the world,” said Dickinson, who does a baked, egg-based, “light and fluffy” version as well as a heavier stovetop spaetzle. The latter has been on the menu since November, a couple of months after he started working at Clover.
“The spaetzle is different,” he said. “It’s more of a dumpling-style pasta. It’s going to be a little denser to the bite.”
More traditional pastas include cavatappi, penne and rigatoni along with shells and elbows.
“I enjoy cavatappi noodles because they hold sauce well,” Moreau said. “It’s like a macaroni noodle but more fun.” Otherwise, he uses elbow macaroni: “I’m not a shells guy.”
Moreau prefers stovetop. Baked mac and cheese “has a tendency to dry out,” he said. Plus, “I really enjoy cooking on a saute range.”
But he doesn’t skimp on the bread crumbs. “I think bread crumbs are important for the textural aspect,” he said. “There’s the cream and the spice and there has to be a crunch.”
Stovetop or baked, with or without bread crumbs or gourmet ingredients, macaroni and cheese is a dish of which I don’t think I will ever tire. It’s too difficult to pick a favorite combination. I pretty much enjoy all of them.
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