Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Felicity and Molly

A timeless American classic!

I love homemade macaroni and cheese. It's hands down my favorite thing to eat, and was always something I requested my mom make when I was home from school on break. Recently, I discovered how to make it myself, and thus it was only a matter of time before it wound up on the blog. The first time I tried it, it was a rousing success, and since I was free and my mom didn't have anything in particular planned, I decided to make it for dinner last night. Unfortunately, this time around there were quite a few more speed bumps, but ultimately, much to my relief, things did turn out alright.

Now, your first question is probably why is this a dish presented by Molly and Felicity of all people? Shouldn't it just be Molly, or Kit, or maybe even Julie taking charge here? Read on to find out what's going on!

I think it's pretty safe to say that most people associate mac and cheese with the 20th century. It's hard not to, considering how big a thing boxed mac and cheese has become for kids of all ages (even if I've never really been a fan of Kraft mac and cheese - yuck!), and while I'm not really much of a foodie, I have noticed that a lot of restaurants feature it as an adult entree on their menus, instead of just relegating it to the kid's menu. It doesn't seem like something that would have much historic significance before the 1930's, and maybe the turn of the century, if that.

As it turns out, this is all wrong! Macaroni and cheese - in one form or another - has been enjoyed by Americans for much longer than that. The dish (unsurprisingly) got its start outside of the United States, first in France, and then it was brought to England sometime around the 14th century. Thomas Jefferson was the first person to introduce it to the United States - while he was traveling abroad in France and Italy. He enjoyed the dish so much that he first tried to make the macaroni at home, but ultimately ended up importing it and the cheese from Italy. After serving a dish called macaroni pie at a state dinner in 1802, the dish became more widely popular amongst wealthy Americans. At some of the taverns in Williamsburg, you can enjoy a version of it that isn't all that different from the macaroni and cheese we eat today.

Things continued this way until the mid to late 1880's, when factory production and better preservation and transportation options for food allowed the ingredients to be more easily affordable for middle and lower class families. Because of this, it lost its popularity with the upper class, and remained a dish of limited popularity for several decades.

This changed in 1937, when Kraft began to produce boxed macaroni and cheese that was inexpensive and could serve a lot of people, which was exactly what people wanted and needed during the Great Depression. As cheese was rationed during World War II, boxed mac and cheese remained popular, and continues to be today. Somewhere along the line, it's apparently become cool and artsy to serve it at restaurants again, and it remains a dish almost everyone is familiar with.

Macaroni and cheese: a dish Felicity and Molly both might have enjoyed!

We don't really work off a recipe when my family makes baked macaroni and cheese. This is a dish my mom learned from her mother, who apparently learned how to do it from one of her friends, and I've learned how to do it from watching my mom and helping her out with it a couple times. Since we don't work with a recipe, the mac and cheese is different every time you make it, especially since we usually just use whatever cheese we have in the fridge. I like it when it's kept pretty simple - any combination of cheddar, American, Colby Jack or Monterey Jack is good with me. When I made it for my brother the day I made the lemon tart, everything went off without a hitch, and so I was totally confident that nothing could possibly go wrong this time.

Unfortunately, that wasn't exactly the case. Cooking the pasta was uneventful, even if I probably should have used a bigger pot and colander.

The part that is always, always tricky is making the cheese sauce. It's probably the danger of just not really having a recipe to work with, but sometimes, it just doesn't want to get thick. At all. No matter how much flour or cheese you put in to thicken it, and no matter how much you whisk it, it can still be a really runny, gross mess.

That was pretty much how things were for the first fifteen minutes of trying to get the sauce to cooperate, and I was getting really, really frustrated. My mom taught me a trick that can sometimes save it from utter disaster, which is to spoon some of the sauce into a mug or other cup, put some more flour in it, whisk it quickly and then put that back into the main sauce. After we did that and kept whisking, it eventually got nice and thick.

It was a little gummy and I felt like I could taste the flour a lot, but I think part of the problem too was that we didn't have a lot of American cheese in the fridge. The saltiness of the cheese helps the cheese sauce get more flavor, and I like being pretty generous with how much of it I put in the sauce.

Now, technically, you really should put about half of the pasta in the casserole dish, pour on some cheese sauce, sprinkle some shredded cheese of your choice on top, then dump the rest of the pasta in and repeat the process from there, but gravity got the better of me. I watched in horror as all of the pasta tumbled in at once, so I sort of had to make do and stir up the pasta once I'd poured all the cheese sauce in to make sure it got down to the noodles at the bottom.

This meant all of the shredded cheese had to just go right on top. It's just cheddar - one of the blocks I used might have been extra sharp instead of just sharp. It tastes more or less the same when it's all melted and swirled together.

What's great about this dish is that you can either leave it like that and put it in the fridge until you're ready to put it in the oven to finish baking, or you can leave it in the oven for a while before you're ready to serve, and it's ridiculously easy to heat it back up again if plans chance. We pop it into the oven for about twenty or so minutes - basically just check on it until the cheese on top is bubbling.

And there you have it! We don't like putting breadcrumbs on ours (or at least I don't), but that's about it. It's gooey, warm and basically amazing, and keeps well for left overs, too. That's actually one of my favorite things about making it, because I know I have something delicious to look forward to for lunch the next day!

If anyone's interested in more recipe specifics, I'm happy to give them. It's really not a difficult dish to make once you get the sauce down right, and it's super easy to tweak it to fit your tastes and preferences!


  1. I am floored by the history of mac and cheese!! I would have never guessed that the dish went back so far. I really thought it was something that evolved in the 20th century. This was a very enlightening post. Keep them coming!!

    1. Will do! I'm glad you enjoyed it, I was surprised too!