Macaroni and cheese is considered the ultimate comfort food. In fact, a steaming bowl of hot pasta and gooey, melted cheese can make everything wrong in the world seem right.
As you might expect, macaroni and cheese has Italian roots. The first known recipe for mac and cheese appeared in a 13th century Italian cookbook, “Liber de Coquina,” or “Book of Cooking”. The recipe for de lasanis called for sheets of pasta to be cut into 2-inch squares, cooked in water, and tossed with grated cheese. De lasanis was so delicious, its popularity spread across Europe.
English settlers in the United States brought recipes for macaroni and cheese with them across the pond and served this dish at New England church suppers. Until the Industrial Revolution when pasta making became easier, macaroni and cheese was eaten mainly by the upper class.
Many food historians credit Thomas Jefferson with popularizing mac and cheese in America. While visiting Europe, Jefferson fell in love with this comfort food; and his chef, Peter Hemmings, who accompanied him on this trip, put in own personal touch on the dish when they returned to the States. It is believed that President Jefferson served mac and cheese to his guests at the White House.
The first American recipe for macaroni and cheese appeared in the cookbook, “The Virginia Housewife,” written by Mary Rudolph, who took over hostess duties at the White House after Jefferson’s wife passed.
Mac and cheese became a staple in American diets at the end of the Great Depression when Kraft Foods introduced the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinners in 1937. Kraft advertised it as “the housewife’s best friend, a nourishing one pot meal.” An inexpensive way to feed a family, Kraft sold eight million boxes its first year.
The traditional recipe has evolved, and today cooks put their own personal touch into their version, which can include a variety of different cheeses and other ingredients like lobster, bacon, tomatoes, ham, shallots, and so on. Following is my version of mac and cheese. I like making it with penne pasta. This was one of those recipes that came together by cleaning out the fridge and pantry. Bad days fade away when my family savors my Penne Pasta with Four Cheeses. The ultimate comfort food!
Penne Pasta with Four Cheeses Serves 6 to 8
4 tablespoons butter ½ cup all-purpose flour 1 ½ cups milk 1 ½ cups half-and-half 16 ounces penne pasta Olive oil or salt for cooking pasta 1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese 1 ½ cups shredded Asiago cheese 1 ½ cups shredded Swiss cheese 1 teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon large grind black pepper Large grated Parmesan cheese for garnish To cook pasta: Fill a large kettle with 4 to 6 quarts of water and place over a high heat and bring to boil.
For the sauce: In a large heavy saucepan, melt butter over a medium heat. Add flour all at once and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly to blend. Slowly add milk and half-and-half, whisking until sauce is thick and creamy. Simmer about 15 minutes. When water in the kettle is at a solid rolling boil, add pasta and 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil or 1 tablespoon salt. Cook pasta according to package directions, or until al dente. Drain into a large colander.
To the saucepan add Cheddar, Asiago, and Swiss cheeses. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and continue stirring until the sauce is smooth and thick. Do not overcook sauce as it may separate. Add drained pasta to the sauce and stir until completely blended and heated through. Spoon into heated serving bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Shopping tip: In Italian penne means “pens” or “quills.” This type of pasta has diagonally-cut, smooth tubes. Penne rigate has rippled edges.
Storage tip: When stored in airtight containers in a cool, dry place and uncooked, dry pasta will last almost indefinitely.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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