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Thomas Jefferson was a multi-talented, polymathic, and cultured genius. He founded the University of Virginia, was America’s ambassador to France, authored the Declaration of Independence, and served as the third president of our country. Moreover, he distinguished himself in the fields of horticulture, architecture, archaeology, and paleontology. Jefferson was so gifted that in 1962 while John F. Kennedy was welcoming a group of 49 Nobel Prize winners to the White House he quipped: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
In addition to his intellectual accomplishments Jefferson was an ardent gourmet and wine connoisseur. A lover of Bordeaux and other French wines, he planted vineyards at Monticello, his palatial estate. Jefferson also cultivated a wide variety of vegetables in his gardens as well. But as sophisticated as his palate was, he is interestingly attributed for introducing macaroni and cheese to America after serving it at the White House in 1802. In fact his cousin, Mary Randolph, included a recipe for it in her 1824 housekeeping book ‘The Virginia Housewife.’ Food historians credit the ancient Greeks and Romans for being the first to combine pasta with cheese. Various versions of the dish can be found throughout the medieval period as well. But few would deny Jefferson his due for being the seminal influence in the emergence of one of the greatest American comfort foods of all time.
Aside from being straightforwardly delicious, mac & cheese became popular because it is a simple, heartwarming, and nutritious meal that can be served in one pot. It is also extremely kid-friendly which clinched its role as a mainstay for generations of American mothers. Kraft introduced their processed yet expedient version in 1937 and now sells millions of it each year.
With all due respect to Kraft, let’s delve into the nuances of preparing mac & cheese from scratch. Get ready, we’re about to enter a panoply of permutations. It begins of course with the macaroni. But what exactly is macaroni, as compared to pasta?
In the interest of semantic clarity, let’s get this little detail out of the way first. Pasta is the general term for the wheat product derived from combining semolina flour with liquid, usually water and/or eggs. Use water and you have macaroni, use eggs and you have noodles. Mac & cheese of course has traditionally relied upon elbow macaroni.
As for the cheese, cheddar is probably the indisputable classic but there are recipes that employ other types and combinations of cheeses including Gruyere, Romano, Parmesan, Fontina, Boursin, Mozzarella and even blue cheeses. The next quandary is the proportion of macaroni to cheese. I perused ten different recipes and the ratios, (in ounces), of macaroni to cheese varied from .42 to 1.3 to one. But I’m going to make this one very simple. Macaroni and cheese should be CHEESY, or else what’s the point? As one food writer pointed out, it is better to err on the side of too much cheese than too little. Therefore, a sound guideline is double the amount of cheese to pasta.
When measuring the ingredients remember that measuring cups vs. ounces, (as determined by a scale), are not the same thing. Measuring cups gauge volume while scales calculate weight. We don’t want to compare apples to oranges; there are already enough alternatives to drive us nuts. One measuring cup of elbow macaroni weighs about five ounces while one measuring cup of shredded cheese, (depending on how firmly it’s packed), weighs 3-4 ounces. It’s not uncommon to come across a recipe that lists the macaroni in one form and the cheese in another. So whether you’re altering an existing recipe or devising your own from scratch, be mindful of the medium you choose to compute the ingredients. Weight is more reliable than volume so its preferable to weigh the macaroni and the cheese.
Next, the cheese is normally melted into a liquid base of some kind. Once again these run the gamut and include butter, milk, evaporated milk, cream, and (yuk), even water. Despite the copious renditions, one approach tends to dominate, namely a Mornay sauce. A Mornay sauce is a Béchamel sauce to which cheese is added. Béchamel is one of the classic “mother” sauces of French cuisine. Quite simply, butter and flour are combined to produce a roux, onion may be added for flavoring, milk is whisked in, it’s seasoned with salt, pepper and sometimes nutmeg, and then simmered and stirred until thickened. Incorporate the shredded/grated cheese and voila!........you have a Mornay.
Many recipes top the macaroni and cheese with breadcrumbs and then bake it to form a nicely browned crust. One final array of choices with macaroni and cheese is the addition of other flavoring ingredients. These include, but are certainly not limited to powdered mustard, cayenne, bacon, paprika, eggs, bay leaves, etc. Much like Jefferson, declare your independence and choose the path of your palate. -- See Mac & Cheese Recipes