Some say Thomas Jefferson ate macaroni and cheese at Monticello after discovering it during his travels to Italy. But this was two centuries ago, when pasta and Parmigiano-Reggiano in America would have been very fancy indeed.
So what about mac and cheese for the people?
Clifford A. Wright, a cookbook author and Mediterranean food scholar, believes 20th-century macaroni and cheese was a product of American industry. “Since the Kraft Company put it in a box in 1937, every American kid grew up with macaroni and cheese,” Wright says.
As I have written, my first love of Americanized Italian food was spaghetti and meatballs. Macaroni and cheese is a close second, a comforting dish that is a perfect accompaniment to Southern staples like fried chicken and barbecue. Just don’t forget the collards.
Over the years I’ve perfected a casserole version of mac and cheese, in which butter, extra-sharp cheddar and cooked elbow pasta are packed into a dish, covered with a mixture of egg and milk, and baked until the top is golden brown and the interior dense and custardy. When it cools, you can slice it into bricks.
Last year, when Jennifer Brulé’s “Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways” was published by UNC Press, I began to ponder her book, which offers traditional, contemporary and international variations of everything from chicken and dumplings to sweet-potato casserole.
In the contemporary vein, she shares a recipe for macaroni and cheese that substitutes pureed butternut squash for some of the milk. Instead of butter for moistening the noodles and crisping the breadcrumbs, she uses coconut oil. I cooked it, found it to be delicious and include that recipe here.
On the international side, Brulé, who lived for a time in Switzerland, features Swiss Alplermagronen, which adds potatoes and onions to a cassserole of tubular pasta and Gruyere or Appenzeller. A marriage of hash browns and mac and cheese? Sign me up!
Still, I didn’t want to steal every one of Brulé’s wonderful dishes for my take on mac and cheese, so I started to look elsewhere.
In British author John Whaite’s “Perfect Plates in 5 Ingredients” (Kyle Books, $29.95), he suggests an “Italianate” casserole of fennel-studded sausage, Taleggio, mozzarella and fusilli.
Talk about an easy, rib-sticking main course.
Whaite instructs us to bake the mac and cheese in the same roasting dish we do the sausage. I did him one better: I mixed the milk and cheese in the roasting pan on top of the stove, added the sausage chunks and corkscrew pasta, dabbed it with torn mozzarella, and put it in the oven to bake. (Sure, a sauce pan might make more sense, but in this case, it worked, and I didn’t have to scrape hardened cheese sauce out of a pot. Yay!)
When I reviewed the Muss & Turner’s in East Cobb earlier this year, I was smitten with Chef Todd Mussman’s Truffleupagus, a sauced mac-and-cheese that feels like an uptown version of the kid-friendly stuff that comes in a box.
Mussman makes a “creamy-dreamy” sauce by mixing an easy white roux with a whole lot of milk, white cheddar and a hint of fennel. Once you add the noddles, you pour it into a bowl, sprinkle with toasted panko crumbs and a drizzle of white-truffle oil, and it’s sublime.
When I read the recipe, I thought it called for way too much milk (A half gallon! that’s insane!), but Carrie Minchew, the good-natured sous chef at M & T East Cobb talked me through it, and it came together wonderfully. Yes, you will have a lot of sauce at first, but be patient. Let it cool for a spell (or even overnight in the refrigerator), and it will thicken. Plus, the pasta will absorb some of the liquid.
“As for the truffle oil, a little goes a long way,” Minchew wrote me via email. “It is super-potent.” So use it sparingly. If your bottle of truffle oil is a gusher, pour some into a teaspoon, and apply it gently. If you want, Minchew says you can dilute the fragrant oil with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil. Frankly, I’m not the biggest truffle hound around, but I didn’t have to go that far.
Pasta with rich cream sauce is apparently an expert truffle-upper, and Mussman’s Truffleupagus may be the best mac and cheese in town.
Either Truffleupagus or the butternut-squash version, I might add, would be a lovely side dish for the holidays. If your friends and family are expecting Kraft, they’ll be tickled to death by your surprise. Just don’t forget the collards.
Recipes for mac and cheese three ways
As a side, consider this truffle-oil-kissed version or a fat-conscious bake using butternut squash. For a rib-sticking entree, try adding Italian sausage, Taleggio and mozzarella.
Muss and Turner’s Truffleupagus
Currently on the menu at Muss and Turner’s East Cobb, this killer macaroni and cheese is heavy on the sauce, gently scented with white-truffle oil and made on the top of the stove — no baking.
Three-Cheese Macaroni with Butternut Squash
This recipe incorporates pureed butternut squash into the sauce, which cuts back on the amount of milk you might otherwise use. It also calls for coconut oil to moisten the noodles and the bread crumbs, rather than butter. It’s the contemporary take on mac and cheese from Jennifer Brulé’s ”Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways: Traditional, Contemporary, International,” the book that inspired this story.
Taleggio and Sausage Mac ‘n’ Cheese
This hearty, Italian-inspired main dish is from British author John Whaite’s “Perfect Plates in 5 Ingredients.” If you can’t find Taleggio, Whaite suggests a strong Brie or Camembert.