Ready for some cheesy history on America’s favorite comfort food? Historians say macaroni and cheese was made popular in the U.S. by Thomas Jefferson, the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence and an apparent foodie.
As the ambassador to the French royal court, Jefferson traveled throughout Europe, and, during his time in Italy, he tried the creamy dish. Like most of us, he couldn’t get enough of it. He brought back a pasta maker, and the dish was served at the White House in 1802.
It was later published in the 1824 cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife,” written by Mary Rudolph, who managed hostess duties at the White House after Jefferson’s wife died. A century later, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese made its appearance, becoming a household name and opening the floodgates to America’s mac-and-cheese obsession.
I have no shame admitting that I still satiate my taste buds with those skinny tube noodles in all its powdered cheese glory … mainly because my 7-year-old roommate loves it. But she can never finish a bowl on her own – unheard of, right? – so I’m “stuck” finishing it for her.
OK, she’s my daughter, so I’m usually eating all her uneaten food, which doesn’t include dessert, as she miraculously has no problem finishing that. Loved by children and adults, macaroni and cheese is a family classic. And, of course, it’s better when it’s homemade.
This recipe starts with a roux. If you’ve never made a roux, it’s a cooked mixture of butter and flour. It’s constantly whisked to the desired shade of brown (the darker, the more flavorful) and used to flavor and thicken sauces, soups and stews.
This roux is cooked to a light golden color, then milk and heavy cream are whisked in, followed by two cheeses, cheddar and Gruyere, and seasonings. The noodles are then stirred into the thick and velvety cheese sauce until they’re coated. You could serve it now and skip the baking if you choose.
Now here’s where things get extra cheesy. Half the macaroni mixture is poured into a baking dish, then a generous layer of shredded cheese is sprinkled on, followed by the remaining macaroni mixture.
That sandwiched layer of cheese adds so much stringy, gooey goodness, and, when paired with the already creamy casserole, creates one irresistible dish. But we’re not stopping there. I mean we’re this deep in deliciousness, so we might as well keep going, right?
A buttery, crisp topping, made with panko, parmesan and seasonings blankets the mac and cheese before being baked to a golden, crunchy crust. Crisp and creamy, this dish fully delivers that rich and nostalgically comforting flavor.
While typically made with elbow pasta, any tubular-shaped pasta can be used. A favorite of mine is gemelli. My daughter loves gemelli because they remind her of unicorn horns. You also can swap the cheeses for any one, or combination, that you like, such as colby, Monterey Jack, fontina or gouda. Just be sure to shred your own, as the pre-shredded cheese doesn’t melt the same.
For a kick of flavor, add jalapeños, hot sauce, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes or bacon. And for heartiness, try additions including sausage and onions, ground beef and peppers, chicken and broccoli, pulled pork or chili.
Macaroni and cheese
Adapted from momontimeout.com
16 ounces elbow macaroni (or other tubular pasta)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cups gruyere cheese, shredded
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup flour
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 cups panko crumbs
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon parsley flakes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking dish and set it aside. Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and place in a bowl. Toss the pasta with olive oil to coat and set aside.
In another large bowl, combine the shredded cheeses. Heat a large, deep saucepan over medium heat and add the butter. Once the butter is melted, add in the flour and whisk until bubbly and golden, about 1 minute.
Whisk in the milk and heavy cream a little at a time until it’s fully incorporated and smooth. Continue whisking until the surface bubbles, then continue cooking and whisking for another 2 minutes. Whisk in the Worcestershire sauce, seasonings and two cups of cheese until combined, then add another 2 cups and continue whisking until smooth.
The sauce should be thick and creamy. Add the cooled pasta and stir until combined and well coated. Pour half the mac and cheese into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle on remaining 2 cups of shredded cheese, then top that with the remaining mac and cheese.
To make the topping, combine the melted butter, panko, parmesan cheese, paprika and parsley flakes in a small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over the top and bake until golden and bubbly, about 25-30 minutes. Serve immediately.
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