Regarding Mac and Cheese

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Macaroni and cheese was one of my favorite dishes growing up. Today, it remains one of my favorites. As it turns out, this dish has been a comfort food for hundreds of years. In honor of my favorite dish, the next two posts will be dedicated to its history and chemistry. The story begins in 14th century…

Photo by Sumeet Jain
Photo by Sumeet Jain

Two of the oldest cookbooks ever found are the Italian Liber de Coquina and the English Forme of Cury. Both contain recipes for dishes focused on pasta and cheese. Forme of Cury has a recipe called makerouns that uses fresh lasagne-style pasta, melted butter, and grated cheese.

The book was written for Richard II and even included a recipe for porpoise.
The book was written for Richard II and even included a recipe for porpoise.

The first appearance of what might be considered modern macaroni and cheese appears in 1769. The Experienced English Housekeeper, by Elizabeth Raffald, uses a cheese sauce as opposed to simply melted cheese.

To make a Drunken Loaf

TAKE a French roll hot out of the oven, rasp it, and pour a pint of red wine upon it, and cover it close up for half an hour, boil one ounce of maccaroni in water till it is soft, and lay it upon a sieve to drain, then put the size of a walnut of butter into it, and as much thick cream as it will take, then scrape in six ounces of Parmesan cheese, shake it about in your tossingpan, with the maccaroni till it be like a fine custard, then pour it hot upon your loaf; brown it with a salamander, and serve it up. –It is a pretty dish for supper.

For those wondering, salamander here refers to an iron cooking utensil, not a living creature.

An iron salamander being used on creme brûlée
An iron salamander being used on creme brûlée

When Thomas Jefferson discovered macaroni during a trip to Paris, he immediately wrote down how it was made and commissioned a machine to make it at home. After the machine failed, he imported one from France. Using Parmesan and his own macaroni, Jefferson made “a pie called macaroni” for various guests. This is the beginning of America’s love affair with macaroni and cheese.

Jefferson's notes on a macaroni machine
Jefferson’s notes on a macaroni machine

Following the introduction to America, it took off quickly and spread to the Midwest by the 1880s. But in the end, it was factory production that led to its popularity. Factory production would bring it to the masses and it would lose its upper-class appeal. The next big step would be shelf stability, of which Kraft would take advantage, especially after World War II.

The story continues next week…

Music: Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, from Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite, performed by Gerlüz.

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