America’s favorite comfort food
On gray, gloomy, chilly days, many turn to creamy, gooey, warm macaroni and cheese. The starchy, quintessential cold weather dish is a favorite among children and adults.
In November, I was a vendor at the North Country Community College’s Holiday Fair. Lunch was a fundraiser for the Women’s College Scholarship Fund — and among the choices was macaroni and cheese. I’m not sure if it was my mood or the fact that I was stressed, but that dish was probably the best mac and cheese I’d ever had. When I told the volunteers who were bringing food and picking up the trash how much I’d enjoyed it, I was told it was the creation of one of the culinary professors at Paul Smith’s College.
Macaroni and cheese is easy to make. It consists of cooked Italian pasta held together with a creamy French cheese sauce and topped with crunchy brown bread. Ancient Romans were probably the first to combine cheese with noodles, and Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing cheese-smothered noodles to America. In 1802, the dish was served at a state dinner.
The recipe is common in 19th-century American cookbooks like The Virginia House-Wife and American Ladies’ Cookery Book. Yet today, many find the simple concoction too time-consuming — enter the Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese “blue box.”
The blue box was introduced to the market in 1937 by Kraft Foods. They had already developed a highly processed cheese substitute in 1915. Made with artificial colors and flavors and emulsifiers, the highly processed, artificial product has a longer shelf life than natural cheese and does not separate when cooked. If you read the ingredients, there is no cheese in the Kraft blue box.
The boxed product was highly advertised as quick and handy, and that year, 8 million boxes were sold for 19 cents each. When World War II broke out and food rations were instituted, sales rose to 50 million boxes annually. The boxed dinner for four required just one ration coupon — and fresh dairy and meat were in short supply.
In modern America, more than a million Kraft blue boxes are sold every day. The meal can be a way for grandparents and young children to cook together. My friend explains: “It wasn’t about the food — it was time spent together when Pop was too sick and infirm to do much else.”
In 2006, Kraft introduced Easy Mac Cups — a single-serving microwavable version that became popular with college students. For most teens and adults, the humble dish is pretty easy to make with real ingredients: macaroni, cheese, milk and flour. Pasta smothered in a thick bechamel cause with aged sharp cheese topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked — comfort food extraordinaire!
Some avoid the creamy dish because of its high calorie count. It can be made healthier by using whole-grain or lentil pasta, adding veggies and making a low-calorie bechamel with low-fat milk and no butter. A cup of pureed squash or pumpkin can be mixed in with the cheese sauce to add fiber, vitamins and flavor. A layer of greens (like spinach, kale or chard) or other vegetables can add flavor and nutrients like folate, beta carotene and vitamins E and C. Portion size matters: If you’re trying to lose weight, have a small portion of macaroni and cheese with a large salad.
Here are some additional tips for making great homemade macaroni and cheese:
— Real cheese tastes best. Use sharp cheddar, not a cheese product like cheese food, processed cheese, Velveeta or Cheeze-Whiz.
— Undercook the pasta. That way, it will soak up some of the sauce as it finishes plumping, keeping the noodles moist.
— The sauce: You’ve got to have a Mornay sauce, a cheese sauce. The French word for a white sauce is Bechamel; for a cheese sauce, Mornay. The sauce is simple to make with milk, salt and pepper, flour, cheese, and sometimes butter.
Macaroni and cheese can be a true comfort food and a way for families to bond together while cooking and dining. A tossed salad of fresh greens, salsa or a side of broccoli goes well with the creamy dish.
Baked Mac ‘n’ Cheese Casserole
You can easily increase amounts to feed a crowd.
2 cups wholegrain elbow macaroni (or other pasta)
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese
1 cup another cheese like Asiago, Swiss, Gruyere Romano or Parmesan (optional; if only using Cheddar, use 3 cups).
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 Tablespoon melted butter
10 oz. chopped frozen spinach, kale or other greens, optional
Bring a large pot of water with salt to a boil.
When water is boiling, add the pasta and cook al dante: 2 or 3 minutes less than the package directions call for.
While pasta cooks, heat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 2-quart casserole dish; set aside. If using more than one type of cheese, combine shredded cheeses in a bowl.
Place milk and flour in a quart (or larger) jar. Shake to combine. Pour into 2 quart saucepan. Add 1/2 cup of the sharp cheddar cheese. Heat over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until beginning to bubble and thicken. Add paprika and 1 more cup of cheese. Stir to combine.
Drain macaroni and stir into the cheese sauce.
Place the mixture in prepared dish. If using greens, place half the mixture in the dish; add a layer of chopped cooked (or frozen thawed) greens and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of cheese. Add remaining macaroni and cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese, bread crumbs, and melted butter.
Bake until browned on top, about 30 minutes. If not brown enough, broil to brown and crisp the topping. Leaving it in the oven too long will dry it out and overcook the pasta.
Transfer dish to a wire rack to cool 5 minutes; serve hot.
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Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at email@example.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.