Macaroni Cheese. Pasta in a cheese sauce. Grains with dairy. I think I was about Four. Maybe even Three. Sitting at the dining room table, possibly in a high chair, and I started to cry. I threw something; a spoon? That is not vivid enough in my mind but I certainly remember the crying. I was eating Macaroni Cheese, or Mac and Cheese as I have started to call it now, like my wife, who’s American and how it is always called nowadays. It is one of my earliest memories (I assume my mum made it from scratch but I think she probably used a sauce packet as I have seen her a couple of times), and I can’t quiet remember when it was but I definitely remember the Macaroni Cheese.
The velvety warmth of the sauce, the richness and flavour from the cheese, and the softness and chewiness of the pasta. It is a stable favourite, indeed it has been voted in the top five of comfort dishes in the UK, in most Anglophile countries but where did it come from?
Thomas Jefferson was the first person to serve it in the White House (some even claim he invented it, although I think that has just help popularize it), and one of the earliest recorded recipes stems from The Experienced English Housekeeper, by Elizabeth Raffald. There is not much variation on the classic dish we now get, albeit without nutmeg. It is probably true that, as with all pasta dishes, there is some origin of it from Italy – but have you ever seen it on a menu there? I was laughed at by an Italian chef when I asked him about it once. I am saw he was thinking of the Kraft version and it being processed American junk.
If I make it nowadays I always keep it simple – macaroni, a bechamel sauce, nutmeg and cheddar. I went through a spell in my teens where I would eat Spaghetti with cheddar and Worcester sauce. It was kind of my de-facto version. It sounds horrible now, and I would have a tendency to use too much Worcester sauce so it swam in it, but it was quick and easy and I made it. Ironically there is a recipe out there that does something very similar, well it doesn’t cover it in worchester sauce and uses bay leaves, and four types of cheese, but it is not that far off. It took me a rather long time to perfect the bechamel sauce to ensure that the flour cooked out enough, the sauce / cheese ratio was correct, and you didn’t overkill it with nutmeg. I discovered very quickly that it is easy to make a bad mac and cheese.
In New York recently I stumbled across a takeaway that is exclusively mac and cheese – even to the extent that they sell it in plastic macaroni (which somehow made it back across the Atlantic). The most decadent version I have ever tasted is with Lobster – which honestly just was silky and succulent, creamy and rich. I am not a fan of it with ham / pancetta (or burgers) – but I really want to see what it would be like by adding some beer to it (a really hoppy one), and experimenting with the cheese – it has to be fairly oily, sharp and nutty. Manchego or Gruyere probably would be a good substitute. Either way you have to keep it relatively simple or its just not mac and cheese.
But perhaps the best thing about it? A perfect hangover cure when you fry yesterday’s leftovers.