By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
The end of daylight savings time is upon us. Now it’s dark before you know it. Who doesn’t want to kick off their shoes, put on their jammies and get all cozied up for the night? And it’s only 5:30 p.m.! It’s gonna be a long night and an even longer winter. Do we feel like eating a summer salad for dinner? Nope. How about a light chicken sauté? Nah. Or even a piece of poached fish? Just not hearty enough. We’re looking for stick-to-your-ribs down-home comfort food. Did someone say macaroni and cheese? Heck yes!
Many of us have fond childhood memories of their mom’s macaroni and cheese. Not me. I enjoyed my elbow or shell noodles with butter only. (Actually margarine, as we never had butter in our house for a reason I can’t explain). Many of us grew up on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, first sold in 1937, shortly after the Depression. A cheap meal in a box, made with shelf-stable processed cheese, a game changer. Unfortunately, children only knew that version so when anyone tried to make it from scratch, there were frowns all around. Believe me, I tried this on my own kids. It was a real disappointment! Does that mean that after reaching adulthood, we are ready for the real deal? Let’s hope so, because macaroni and cheese has enjoyed an upscale revival for at least the past 20 years.
We see all kinds of ingredients in mac ‘n cheese now with a variety of cheeses NOT including Velveeta, which was the go-to choice back in the day. Goat cheese for tang, Brie for richness, bleu for an unusual twist, Swiss for body. The array of proteins is staggering: sausage, chorizo, chicken, shrimp, crab, lobster. It’s almost like making up pizza toppings for the rich and famous. For example, Ruth's Chris Steak House offers a side of Lobster Mac ’n Cheese for $19.00
But the original macaroni and cheese was more pedestrian than these offerings. It was comprised of pasta, cheese, and butter. The story goes that Thomas Jefferson introduced the dish to America from Italy in the 1780s. He was so enamored with what he had dined on in Europe that he sent for an Italian pasta machine. Some reports say that his daughter, Mary Randolph, made pasta at Monticello, as evidenced in her cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, written in 1824. Another story is that Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, was the one who put the dish on the map in the American South.
Macaroni and cheese was a staple for low-income families, families who needed a quick hearty meal, but eventually elevated to white-tablecloth restaurants in the 21st century. In 2018, Smithsonian Magazine described this dual role as ‘the conundrum and beauty of mac and cheese. It is one person’s survival food, another person’s staple main course, and yet another person’s food of culture and celebration.” This May, Afro.com also found cultural significance in this meal: “Mac and cheese is truly the pinnacle of Black American dishes [and] culture. Macaroni and cheese is part of Black American’s journey. It’s not just a beloved American dish, but truly a staple for Black people.”
You would be hard pressed to find a Southern American menu without macaroni and cheese, which has been a staple for almost two centuries. I have noticed there are two types of preparations: the “custard” style where eggs are used to bind the milk in the sauce and the classic béchamel sauce. When cheese is added to the latter, it becomes a mornay sauce. I am offering both techniques in my recipes today.
My cousin Jeri’s recipe has been handed down through her family in Georgia. It is the egg and milk style. Jeri visited me last week here in California from Detroit, and I took the opportunity to learn her method. Boy, is it easy and delicious! My recipe is a classic béchamel; however I have jazzed it up with onions, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh spinach. If you want a good plain mac ‘n cheese, just omit these ingredients and you’ll be good to go!
Keep in mind, you can completely alter the outcome of your mac ’n cheese by changing the flavor profile. Say, for example, you want a TexMex dish. When you sauté the onions and garlic, add a chopped poblano or red pepper along with chorizo. Continue with the milk thickening. When you’re done, fold in some grilled corn kernels and fresh cilantro. Use cotija cheese in place of the Parmesan. You get the picture. And let us know here at The Insider what delectable concoctions you come up with!
Jeri’s Georgian Mac ’n Cheese
Yield: 10-12 servings
1 lb. elbow macaroni
2 oz. butter
1 Tbs. Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. chopped garlic
2 lg. eggs
4 c. packed shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3 c. whole milk
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook for 8-10 minutes or according to the package instructions. Drain well in a colander. Do not rinse. Put the pasta in a 4-qt. casserole. Add the butter in chunks to melt. Sprinkle with Lawry’s, black pepper, and garlic. Crack both eggs into the dish, stirring around to mix through.
Blend in the shredded cheese. Pour on the milk. Gently stir around the casserole to distribute evenly. Bake in a preheated 350° oven uncovered for 45-60 minutes, until the macaroni is firm and golden brown.
Sun-Dried Tomato Macaroni and Cheese
Yield: 10-12 servings
1 lb. elbow macaroni
2 oz. butter
1 c. minced onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
scant 1/4 c. flour
1 qt. whole milk (use 2% for a lighter version)
1/2 c. sun-dried tomatoes, chopped small (not in oil)
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
3 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 c. grated Parmesan cheese
3 c. baby spinach, packed
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. fresh ground black or white pepper
extra grated Parmesan for topping
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook for 8-10 minutes or according to the package instructions. Drain well in a colander. Rinse and drain again. Put pasta into a large bowl. Reserve. Grease a 4-qt. casserole. Preheat oven to 350°.
While pasta is cooking over low heat, melt the butter in a heavy-bottom saucepan. Add the onions and garlic. Cook slowly until the onions are translucent but not colored, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour. Cook for 2 minutes. Do not brown. Slowly whisk in the milk, stirring as you go so as not to form lumps. Increase heat to medium. Bring the milk to a low boil, turn down to simmer. Add the tomatoes, dry mustard, and nutmeg. Continue to cook until the sauce is slightly thickened ,about 7-8 minutes. Do not boil heavily. Stir in the spinach, salt and pepper.
Add the cheeses to the pasta. Pour the hot béchamel sauce onto the macaroni. Adjust the seasoning. Transfer to the casserole. Level the pasta with a spatula. Sprinkle the top with additional Parmesan. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.