Macaroni and cheese is as American as you can get. Some authorities attribute its invention to Thomas Jefferson, although that is probably apocryphal. Jefferson did bring pasta machines to the United States, but the first known published recipe came from a Philadelphia chef in the early 1800s. Whatever the real origin, the dish soon became popular in Virginia and the rest of the South. It appeared on the tables of many Southern homes as well as hotel and railroad diner menus for many decades extending into the twentieth century. Early recipes called for boiling the macaroni for an hour or longer until it fell apart. Then it was combined with cheese, covered with bread crumbs, and baked into what resembled a sort of pudding. Honestly, it sounds pretty disgusting regardless of its popularity.
The "gold standard" - boxed mac and cheese
The real event for mac and cheese, though, came in 1937 near the dawn of the prepared food rage that still engages America’s home cooks. Kraft brought out a boxed version complete with dried macaroni and a powdered cheese sauce that was billed as cheap, fast, and easy. The original recipe on the box called for bread crumbs on top and baking, but these embellishments were soon abandoned in favor of speed. Boxed mac and cheese was immediately popular and became more popular during the Second World War. After the war, when the whole style of home cooking was changing, it became a real favorite, especially with kids.
I remember loving mac and cheese as a child – pouring the macaroni out of the box into the boiling water, waiting for it to cook, draining it, and adding the powder from the little envelope along with some milk and butter. My grandkids still love that version, and when all else fails to please their finicky kid-type appetites, macaroni from the box is sure to appeal to them. For me during college days, boxed macaroni was a standby along with ramen noodles. Maybe that’s why and when it lost interest for my more grown-up tastes.
These days, restaurants including some very high-end places in our town are bringing out their fancy versions of this old-time favorite. You may find mac and cheese made with bleu cheese, green chiles, goat cheese, curly pastas, mushrooms, and even truffles.
Shrimp and artichoke mac and cheese coming out of the oven
Another favorite comfort food, especially if you are a Southerner or even if you have only visited the South, is shrimp and grits. This delicacy of Southern cooking has a lot in common with macaroni and cheese – a smooth creamy base of starch, oozing, gooey cheese, and maybe a little crust on the top to give it just a bit of bite.
Served with broccoli, broccoli puree and cornbread
A couple of weeks ago, I was wondering what I could do to liven up the mac and cheese that I was making for dinner. What I came up with is this riff on shrimp and grits. It is guaranteed to be gooey and loaded with cheesy flavor. The shrimp, bacon, mushrooms, and artichokes make it a lot more substantial than the old-timey product made straight out of the box. I doubt that my grandkids would like this version, but I certainly did.
SHRIMP AND ARTICHOKE MACARONI AND CHEESE
You can use regular elbow macaroni for this dish, but it is more interesting to use different shapes or colors that you have been wanting to try. I have used foglie di carciofo, a flat, round pasta flavored with dried artichoke. It seems perfect for the dish, but any other would do.
12 oz (3 cups) dried pasta
5 oz (4 strips) thick-sliced bacon
5 medium (4 oz) cremini mushrooms, sliced
14 oz (1 can) or fresh or frozen artichoke hearts, quartered
1 lb raw shrimp, peeled
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
4 Tablespoons flour
1½ Cups milk
½ Cup cream
2 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated
2 ounces Monterey jack cheese, grated
4 ounces Swiss cheese, grated
4 ounces sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
grated Parmesan cheese
- Generously butter the inside of a two-quart baking dish. Coat the insides with panko and set aside. Reserve additional panko for the top.
- In a large pot, bring 2 quarts of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and return to the boil. Cook the pasta for 12 minutes or until al dente, stirring frequently. Drain and return to the pot. Set aside.
- In a 9 inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, sauté the bacon until not quite crisp. Remove the bacon and drain it on several thicknesses of paper towel. Chop coarsely and set aside. Then add the mushrooms to the still hot skillet and sauté in the bacon fat until lightly browned. Add the artichoke hearts and shrimp and continue to sauté until the shrimp are pink – about 3 minutes. Set aside.
- In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the flour, stirring constantly to make a light roux. Be careful not to brown. Add the milk and cream and stir constantly until thickened. Add the grated cheeses and sour cream and continue to stir until the cheeses are completely melted. Pour the mixture over the reserved pasta. Add the mushroom, artichoke, and shrimp mixture and stir gently to combine. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper.
- Transfer the mixture into the prepared baking dish, top with additional panko and grated Parmesan cheese. Baste the top with melted butter.
- Bake in the top third of a preheated oven at 350° for about one hour or until the top is golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack for about 5 minutes and then serve immediately.
Yield: Serves 4 to 6 generously