There's a little known fact among history buffs and culinary geeks alike, but something every comfort-loving foodie should know: In addition to the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark, we can thank Thomas Jefferson for macaroni and cheese.
He tasted it in Europe and even bought a pasta machine, “a mould for making macaroni” (“macaroni” described any pasta shape back then). He even he served it at a White House dinner in 1802. But it wasn't quite the variation we know and love today.
Dinner guest Reverend Manasseh Cutler, a Massachusetts congressman, mentions a “pie called macaroni” which he found “disagreeable,” filled with what he thought were onions, according to Monticello.org. Fellow guest Meriwether Lewis explained to Cutler that those strands weren’t onions but macaroni, “made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.”
Jefferson tweaked the recipe. First he switched to store-bought. American University professor Pierangelo Castagneto says a Trenton-based pasta factory that opened in the early1800s became the official White House macaroni supplier. Second, records show that Jefferson ordered Parmesan from Italy. The 1824 Virginia Housewife written by Jefferson relative Mary Randolph includes a Monticello-inspired recipe for baked macaroni layered with butter and cheese.
Fast forward more than a century. In 1937 the Kraft Dinner with macaroni and cheese—“a meal for four in nine minutes”—debuted during the Depression and jumpstarted the mac and cheese revolution. It turned the Jeffersonian favorite (Ronald Reagan loved it, too) into an American staple.
Mac and cheese achieved critical mass in the late 2000s when the dish got its own restaurant. Sarita and Caesar Ekya opened S’mac in New York City with what was then a novel variety of macs. MacBar, also in New York, followed up with dishes like MacQuack (duck confit), and MacStroganoff (braised beef, mushrooms, sour cream). St. Louis’ Cheese-ology, Houston’s Jus’ Mac, and San Francisco’s Homeroom opened. The nation’s only mac and cheese chain, MacDaddy’s, opened in Texas and Connecticut.
Even top chefs showed mac and cheese some love. It’s easy to see why. Its very simplicity makes it the perfect delivery system for anything from ground beef to lobster.
Hyper-accomplished, totally approachable, cheese-obsessed, four-star chef Terrance Brennan is one of them. Brennan not only introduced the concept of a European cheese course to America at upscale Picholine, his Artisanal Bistro and Wine Bar is the cheese-lover’s promised land.
Brennan’s mac balances the right pasta and the right cheeses. He likes penne rigate because the ridges “hold the sauce” while “elbow macaroni just gets lost.” He sauces with Mornay, a white sauce typically made with shredded cheese. Brennan just smiles when asked which cheeses he uses, but a Google search reveals a Brennan version with gruyère, comté or cantal, and fontina. He prefers panko, Japanese breadcrumbs, because its larger, drier crumb makes crunchier crusts. He strews a panko/butter/parmesan blend over sauced pasta, then broils. The result: insanely silky and creamy, a higher pasta-to-sauce ratio, with a crust that tastes like a crispy Parmesan wafer.
(Artisanal Bistro has Mac and Cheese Pies for two ($24), or eight ($60), available for take-out or delivery.)
Robert Dunn ran high-end restaurants until the weak economy made expense accounts disappear faster than Coriander-Crusted Sea Bass. “The high-end restaurant scene lost its energy,” he says. So he went the other way, building a chain of mac and cheese restaurants.
His menu reflects the broad palate a chain requires. He made endless trips to the Philadelphia cheese steak mecca, Geno’s, from Connecticut, to perfect his Mac Philly Cheese Steak (with Whiz). Mac Alla Ajillo blends shrimp, garlic, dry sherry, lemon and asiago, while Mac Pizza’s tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella and pepperoni looks like a pizza. Mac Pulled Pork blends slow-roasted pork, blue cheese with Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce.
St. Louis’ Cheese-ology has Black and Bleu, Cajun spices mellowed with blue and American and thinly-sliced steak. Bacon, Bacon’s thick-cut bacon comes with enough mozzarella to make cheese strings from fork to mouth. Buffalo Chicken tempers Buffalo sauce with two cheese and smoky chicken.
Owner and former chemist Bill Courtney lost his job when the economy crashed. Chemistry was a dead-end and earning a living playing his violin “was never gonna happen,” so his wife suggested he make the mac and cheese that his “proper Southern mom” had taught him.
Understanding chemical reactions makes him a better cook. “Without understanding what’s going on in oven or on the stove,” he says, “there won’t be success in cooking.” Science also gave him the discipline to tweak recipes one ingredient at a time. Change more than one in the same batch and “you won’t know what actually improved it. It makes the experiment, the recipe, impossible to replicate.”
Courtney plans on keeping his menu simple. While truffle mac and cheese may work on the coasts, “the more complicated I get the more I confuse my customer base.”