Sunday, March 23, 2003

Cozy up to mac 'n' cheese

Home cooks put away the Kraft and dish up creamier versions

By Tommy C. Simmons
The Associated Press

Most children name macaroni and cheese as one of their favorite foods. But it's not a homemade recipe they rave about - it's the boxed type, which is among top-selling items in supermarkets. Try making homemade macaroni and cheese one night during Lent and see how your family likes a creamier version.

First, a history lesson. Food historians have records of Americans, even a president, eating macaroni and cheese in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed eating macaroni with grated cheese and butter, and he also liked a sweet macaroni pudding, according to records at Monticello, his plantation home outside of in Virginia. However, it isn't until the late 1930s and the Depression that macaroni and cheese becomes the widely popular and loved food that it is today.

Basic recipes for macaroni and cheese appear as early as 1824 in Mary Randolph's The Virginia House-Wife. Apparently, Randolph is no fan because she describes the dish by saying it "started out as a misconception of an Italian dish."

In Sarah Rutledge's The Carolina Housewife, written in 1847, macaroni and cheese is again identified as an "Italian Receipt," and Rutledge's version is similar to the macaroni and cheese recipes of today. It consists of a white sauce layered with grated cheese, in this case Parmesan cheese, and cooked macaroni and then baked for "10 minutes in a quick oven."

More recipes appear in cookbooks from the 1880s through early 1900s. Jean Anderson says in her cookbook, the American Century Cookbook, that the earliest recipe she found made with "an honest-to-goodness cheese sauce" is in the Larkin Housewives' Cook Book (1915).

However, it wasn't a recipe for homemade macaroni and cheese that popularized the dish; it was Kraft, says Anderson. Kraft was the first to introduce an instant macaroni and cheese dinner, in 1937. In that year alone, Anderson writes "eight million Kraft Dinners were sold, but their popularity soared tenfold during World War II because they were not only good meat substitutes, but also required just one ration coupon."

Why bother making macaroni and cheese from scratch? The answer: There are people who like pasta and cheese, but don't like the packaged mixes - and you may be one of them.

Marvelicious Mac and Cheese

2 cups (7 ounces) uncooked elbow macaroni

21/2 cups fat-free milk

1 tablespoon butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

2 cups shredded reduced-fat sharp Cheddar cheese

1/2 cup shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook macaroni according to package directions.

Meanwhile, heat milk and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Gradually whisk in flour, salt and dry mustard and simmer for 1 minute, whisking occasionally.

Remove from heat; stir in 2 cups of the Cheddar cheese until melted. Add drained macaroni to saucepan and toss with cheese sauce.

Transfer mixture to a greased 8-inch or 9-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle 1/2 cup Cheddar cheese on top (optional). Bake uncovered until hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Stove-Top Macaroni and Cheese

2 large eggs

12-ounce can evaporated milk

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water

1/2 pound elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

12 ounces Cheddar, American or Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 3 cups; use mild or sharp Cheddar, as desired)

Toasted bread crumbs or crumbled saltine crackers

Mix eggs, 1 cup evaporated milk, Tabasco sauce, 1/2 teaspoon salt, pepper and dry mustard in a small bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 2 quarts water to boil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven. Add remaining 11/2 teaspoons of salt, and the macaroni; cook until almost tender, but still a little firm to the bite. Drain and return the macaroni to the pan over low heat. Add butter and toss to melt.

Pour the egg mixture over the buttered noodles along with three-quarters of the cheese; stir until thoroughly combined and cheese starts to melt. Gradually add remaining evaporated milk and cheese, stirring constantly, until mixture is hot and creamy, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately, topped with toasted bread crumbs or crumbled saltine crackers.

Makes 4 main-course servings or 6 to 8 side-dish servings.

John Thorne, "Simple Cooking" (out of print)

Who do you like for Oscars?
Strong women may nab Oscars
Ballet begins with Balanchine jewel
Cincinnati Ballet's new season comes together
International ballet gala goes on the road
DEMALINE: The arts
Human rights experts view 'Just Man'

'Lion King's roar produces delight
'Midsummer' frolics but sells its soul short

Fans catch memories
Thermal hair straightening trend still warm
Lack of snow doesn't slow skiers
Get to it!

Cozy up to mac 'n' cheese
Serve it this week: SCALLOPS
Inland crab cakes surprisingly good