Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate
comfort food, especially beloved by kids, but grown-ups too, who reach
back to their childhood for fond memories of savory contentment coming
from this rich, gooey, cheese-filled dish.
There is hardly a cookbook that doesn’t
have a recipe for mac and cheese, but if you don’t want to make it from
scratch, boxed and frozen versions abound, with simple instructions for
putting the dish on the table in a matter of minutes. It’s not only a
time saver, but easy on the budget, and a favorite of the whole family.
Several Syracuse-area restaurants serve this ultimate comfort food,
perfect for warming up a cold winter’s night. Or make a batch for home
using one of the recipes at the end of this story.
Although it’s famous for award-winning
Italian fare, Dominick’s Restaurant, 1370 Burnet Ave. (471-4262) also
serves a killer macaroni and cheese, although it’s a Friday-only
special and only at lunch. It’s priced at $3.95.
Nothing but Noodles, 3409 Erie Blvd. E.,
DeWitt (Marshall’s Plaza; 445-4000), a fairly new player on the
Syracuse restaurant scene, sells a “three-cheese macaroni.” It combines
fusilli pasta with cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese and sells for
$6.49. On the kids’ menu you’ll find macaroni and cheese, rotini pasta
tossed in a three-cheese sauce ($3.99), while the catering menu offers
a heftier-sized three-cheese macaroni ($27.99), which serves five to
And for a sumptuous twist on this
classic, JD’s Fish n’ Grill, formerly Doug’s Fish Fry, mixes lobster
into a creamy cheese mixture with elbow macaroni. A 22-ounce dinner
portion costs $7.95; $3.40 for a side order. It’s available for eat-in
or takeout orders at three area JD’s: 6812 Manlius Center Road, DeWitt
(437-3684); 3610 Route 31, Clay (652-7335); and 3249 Milton Ave.,
Macaroni and cheese is considered the
all-American dish, first served in the White House in 1802 when Thomas
Jefferson was president. The dish has English beginnings, the Brits
describing it as macaroni baked with cream and cheese. But macaroni
appeared much earlier, having been brought by Marco Polo from China to
Italy where it became ubiquitous with Italian cooking.
Fine catch: An employee at JD’s in Clay displays their popular
lobster mac and cheese. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
As for the name “macaroni,” legend has
it that in the late 13th century German bakers cooked up shapes of men,
stars, birds and seashells, which they called collectively “doughmen.”
These bakers went to Genoa to sell their product but the Italians found
them too expensive, and exclaimed “Ma caroni!” meaning “but it’s too
dear.” So the Germans reduced the size, and at the same time, the
price. The name stuck and they made a bundle.
In the early 1900s, households that
couldn’t afford cooks and maids embraced the introduction of
convenience foods to avoid long hours of toil in the kitchen. Kraft
came up with the brainstorm that saw macaroni and cheese as a perfect
commodity for busy home cooks who could whip up a quick supper. The
dinner in a box was first introduced by Sam Kraft in 1937, and was
dubbed Kraft Dinner. Today 2 million boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
are sold each day, a great number to Canadians, who remain Kraft’s
World War II saw a macaroni and cheese
bonanza as part of the war effort. Meat was rationed, and fresh dairy
products were also on the short list of products available. With men in
the armed forces, women entered the workforce, and after a long day at
the factory, Rosie the Riveter needed to put together a cheap meal in
minutes. Fast-forward to the 1996 presidential conventions, when
marketing-savvy Kraft came up with elephant-shaped “Republican” and
donkey-shaped “Democrat” pasta, proving that macaroni and cheese could
be a great unifier.
A little more political mac and cheese
trivia: President Ronald Reagan liked to eat the dish, his favorite, on
his birthday. The recipe appears in The White House Family Cookbook (1987, Random House).
Kraft continues to corner the packaged
mac and cheese market, and sells it in many variations besides elbow
macaroni. In 1975 Kraft added spirals, then, in 1988, wheels. To appeal
to kids, their best consumers, myriad macaroni shapes include
Flintstones, Bugs Bunny, SpongeBob SquarePants and, currently, Hannah
Frozen macaroni and cheese has also
entered the marketplace. Stouffer’s and Boston Market both offer frozen
versions of the popular dish and, most recently, a new frozen food
brand, Joy of Cooking, capitalizes on its link to the famed cookbook.
The brand features many products, including the authentic Joy of Cooking mac and cheese in frozen form, packaged as a 16-ounce side dish for $3.49.
If you want to make mac and cheese from
scratch, and mom didn’t write down her recipe, there are two books
dedicated exclusively to the dish, both with the same name. Macaroni & Cheese by Joan Schwartz (2001, Villard) and Macaroni & Cheese
by Marlena Spieler, (2006, Chronicle Books) both flirt with dishes that
could be found in Italian cookbooks, or even Mexican, Indian and
Mediterranean to pad their list of recipes. After all, you can only go
so far with basic noodles and cheese.
Schwartz takes the easy road to
composing her book. Following an introductory chapter on the various
kinds of macaroni and cheese available, she relies on recipes submitted
by acclaimed chefs like Bobby Flay and Rocco DiSpirito.
Spieler extends the two basic
ingredients into salads, soups and even desserts. She also reaches back
into her Jewish background for lockshen with cheese, which is pasta
with cottage cheese. Schwartz delves into Jewish cooking as well with
her own recipe for sweet noodle and cheese kugel.
While elbow macaroni is the pasta shape
most identified with the dish, others can work. The most important
factor in choosing the pasta is that it be hearty enough to take up the
combined weight of the creamy sauce and cheese. Pasta ribbons like
spaghetti or linguine can get weighed down into a gummy mess or even
clump together. Shapes that work the best are cavatappi, which is
actually two pieces of macaroni fused together to look like a
corkscrew. Conchiglie, or little shells, scoop up the creamy sauce
well. Rigatoni, radiatore and rotelle are also good choices.
As for the cheese, cheddar is mostly
identified with classic mac and cheese because it melts beautifully. If
choosing another kind, it is important to use a cheese that melts well,
like mozzarella, ricotta and, if you have money to spare and want a
little kick, Parmigiano Reggiano. In case you are longing for the dish
that has been handed down through the family, Velveeta may be the
cheese you remember, however pedestrian. After all, it’s the memory
There are some guidelines to assist you
in preparing the best macaroni and cheese. For the macaroni, allow
about 1½ quarts of rapidly boiling water per pound of noodles. And make
sure the water covers every bit of the macaroni, otherwise it will be
gummy and bloated. Stir the water as soon as you dump in the pasta, and
several afterward, so nothing sticks together. When the water returns
to a boil, lower the heat slightly so that both water and macaroni cook
together in a moderate boil.
Be sure to salt the water, but don’t add
oil because it weighs down the macaroni. If desired, toss with oil
after you cook it. Do not overcook, unless you want a really gummy
product. More important, undercook the macaroni if you are going to
bake it with the sauce.
The simplest version is boiling and
draining the macaroni, shredding the cheese on top, then tossing all
together. But for the rich and creamy version, incorporate a bechamel,
or white, sauce for a sumptuous dish that is either mixed on top of the
stove, or baked with a topping of bread crumbs for a wonderful blend of
Whichever way you decide to go, enjoy your taste of an American classic, at the same time remembering a childhood favorite.
City Bakery Macaroni and Cheese
This recipe is from Macaroni & Cheese, by Joan Schwartz.
6 tablespoons butter, plus extra for the baking dish
¼ cup cornbread crumbs
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 quart whole milk
6 tablespoons flour
Freshly ground pepper
1 ¼ cup (5 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese
1 cup (5 ounces) grated mild white cheddar cheese
1 cup (5 ounces) grated Grana Padano or Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly
butter a 3½-quart deep baking dish or a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Spread
the crumbs in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until golden
brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a
boil and cook the macaroni until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Bring the
milk to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. In a medium
saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the 6 tablespoons of butter, add
the flour and mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cook, stirring,
for 3 minutes. Whisk in the hot milk and continue whisking until
smooth. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring continuously, until
the mixture thickens enough to coat the spoon. Season with salt and
pepper and strain through a fine strainer.
Add the sauce to the cooked macaroni.
Add 1 cup each of the Gruyere, cheddar and Grana Padano and mix well.
Taste, and season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Pour the macaroni
mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. At
this point, the macaroni and cheese may be cooled on the counter,
covered and refrigerated for one day. Before proceeding, preheat the
oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the toasted cornbread crumbs evenly over
the casserole and cover with foil. Bake on the middle shelf until
heated through, about 20 minutes; remove the foil and continue baking
until the top is golden brown, an additional 10 minutes. Let stand for
10 minutes before serving.