Monday, December 19, 2011

The all American Mac and Cheese tradition

If Americans were to single out one meal as their favorite comfort food, there is no question that macaroni and cheese (mac & cheese for friends) would win hands down. The overcooked, super soft pasta covered in melting cheese is something that most Italians do not even dare to get close to. If there is one thing that scares the hell out of Italians more than non-Italian food is food that is "similar" to Italian, but - as they would put it - it is an Italian violated.

Photo from the website My recipes
And let's be frank: nothing says violation of pasta more than a good, gooey, overcheesy bowl of mac & heese. It is true that some traditional Italian pasta dishes are technically mac & cheese: spaghetti cacio e pepe are nothing more than noodles with pecorino cheese and pepper; pasta alla ricotta is nothing more than pasta with ricotta cheese. Yet, nothing is more un-Italian than mac & cheese. It is even a bigger violation than the Chicago pizza, that at least resembles a Sicilian sfincione. In a good mac & cheese the pasta (traditionally tubolar "elbow" pasta) is boiled well past its al dente point, and then baked with a cheese sauce so as to become almost a smooth paste of starch and melted cheese. Sometimes you can add a crust of crunchy crumbs on top, but that's considered fancy in many parts of America.

Plus, this dish is almost never considered an entree, rather a side dish that one chooses to replace vegetables. YES!

Now, I often said (for instance, here) that Italians are stupid to even refuse to taste certain food simply because it is not Italian or because it seems to go against every rule of Italian cuisine. And my position is exactly the same also on mac & cheese: this stuff is D E L I C I O U S.

The history of this dish is quite interesting. The first to import pasta making machines from Italy to the US was Thomas Jefferson at the beginning of the 19th century. Pasta had already appeared here and there, but it was only with the French fleeing the French revolution that pasta factories were then created. Although there are several "recipes" of what resembles mac & cheese popping out here and there, the original mac & cheese recipe is attributed to Mary Randolph, the author of the book The Virginia Housewife. Her brother was the son in law of Thomas Jefferson, so perhaps it is not by accident that she came up with what is considered the first REAL mac & cheese recipe:


Since then, mac & cheese  has become first a Southerner typical dish, then an African American specialty, and finally a national obsession. Kraft introduced its mac & cheese in 1937, and its ubiquitous blue box is still the market leader. Kids grow up loving it, and I can't blame them.

Now, since I moved here I have been (eating and) experimenting a lot with mac & cheese. Recently I also organized a mac & cheese dinner, where guests were invited to bring their own versions of mac & cheese. If it is true that the original version only calls for pasta, butter, cheese, the variations are infinite: I have eaten mac & cheese with lobster, with burnt tips (a barbecue specialty), apples and walnuts, bacon, hot chiles, herbs...so the idea of the dinner was to see what people could come up with.
The mac & cheese options at the Tuscan Foodie's house: a traditional one, one topped with fried onion rings, one with bacon and jalapenos, one with radicchio and one with walnuts and apples...
The dinner came out well, if I do say so myself: we ate like pigs, and there were two mac and cheese that really stood out. One with apples and walnuts that was subtle, yet very cheesy, and then there was a heart attack chili, with I can't remember how many kilos of cheese had in it, and that was smothered with a crust of fried onion rings. Boy, was that thing GOOD. My liver was crying for mercy at every bite, but I kept on going. For science, of course.

I don't think anyone can accuse me of not doing enough to embrace the culture I am living in, right?
s

11 comments:

Trobairitz said...

Yumm! Great idea for a dinner party. My waistline is expanding just thinking of all those gooey options.

I used to make homemade traditional mac and cheese but since turning vegan I've turned to a nutritional yeast 'uncheese' sauce. It is actually quite yummy.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

My waistline did expand...and as a matter of fact, tonight I made some basic mac and cheese, because after writing this post I felt I needed some!

Claudio said...

Well, I'm italian, I'm a foodie and yes, I'm quite doubtful about mac & cheese. I can say that it's not one of my favourite dish, not for lunch and neither for dinner. But after reading I suddenly realized we have something in Italy (or at least in my mom's traditional cuisine) that really looks like Mac & Cheese and it's called "maccheroni pasticciati"... Actually a dish made of maccheroni and cheese (fontina, parmigiano or even besciamella) baked (we say "ripassato") and used to get rid of dinner leftovers and pieces of cheese left too long in the fridge. Ok, it's not a prized dish and not really something to eat everyday but quite gorgeous and tasty!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Claudio, BINGO! In a previous version of my post, I had written about a dish that my mom used to make, with pasta in a besciamella sauce and cheese, baked in the oven...then I had deleted that paragraph for whatever reason!

So yes, we have something very similar in Italy as well!

from uk said...

Ok, I'll try Mac & cheese then when i will be back in uk.

During the last months I tried: chicago pizza(sort of), hawaiian pizza, and fettuccine alfredo.

Also I'm discovering cornwall cuisine, they have something interesting

Tuscan foodie in America said...

hey, from UK: what did you think of fettucine alfredo? they are one of the fattest dishes I have ever had in my life...

As for Cornwall cuisine: PASTIES!!!

illmakeitmyself said...

In Japan, cheese is very, very expensive, usually imported, and scarce on the ground. Luckily, that's what got me cooking mine with a little cheese and a lot of kabocha (buttercup squash--like a pie pumpkin in the US). Delicious!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Interesting: I had never thought about the fact that cheese was almost absent from Japanese cuisine. But now that I think of it, you are right...

I had never heard of kabocha before moving to the US: you can find them here as well' but I have personally never cooked them.

illmakeitmyself said...

They do have cheese for "cheese bread" and gratin, but the quality, quantity, and price are generally worse than in the US. For example, 100 g of store-brand cheddar is at least 200 yen here, where I could have a whole block of Kraft cheddar for the same price. The real cheese is expensive because it's imported (taxes) or made at local farms (taxes or costs of operation).

I think a butternut or buttercup squash would work very well in place of kabocha. I might have to go procure some sadness-cheese and kabocha this weekend after re-reading this!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

There is a recipe for a mac and cheese with butternut squash ...interested?

illmakeitmyself said...

Definitely!

The one I've used is from Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks--great food blog:
http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/broccolibasil-mac-and-cheese-recipe.html

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