Did our third president actually serve macaroni and cheese at the White House? Had he discovered the dish while he was minister to France, tracked down the recipe, even dispatched a deputy to Naples to buy a pasta maker—the better to enjoy mac and cheese back home? Food historians quibble, but based on months of research (for my American Century Cookbook, 1997), my answers are “Yes, yes, and yes.”
The mac and cheese we adore today, however, bears little resemblance to what Jefferson is believed to have served at the White House in 1802: boiled spaghetti (called macaroni back then) layered in a casserole with shreds of Parmesan and dots of butter. Mary Randolph, a Jefferson relative by marriage, later offered a mac and cheese preparation, excerpted below, in her cookbook, The Virginia Housewife (1824)—though she calls it simply “Macaroni.” Was it Jefferson’s recipe? Possibly. He was known to share favorites with family and friends—copying them in his own hand, no less. Not for nothing has Jefferson been called America’s first “foodie.”
“Boil as much macaroni as will fill your dish, in milk and water, till quite tender,” Randolph wrote, “drain it on a sieve, sprinkle a little salt over it, put a layer in your dish, then cheese and butter as in the polenta [the preceding recipe in Randolph's cookbook] and bake it in the same manner”—layered with “slices of cheese and bits of butter until the dish is full,” then topped with more cheese and butter. “Twenty or thirty minutes will bake it,” Randolph instructs.
Twenty–three years later, Sarah Rutledge’s Carolina Housewife appeared with an altogether different version: boiled and drained macaroni, grated Parmesan, and white sauce layered and baked in a buttered dish for 10 minutes in a “quick oven.” Mighty quick, I’d say. A “quick” oven is a hot oven, and this one must have been hissing–hot!
Fast–forward to the waning years of the 19th century. With Italians immigrating to big American cities, Philadelphia cooking–school teacher Sarah T. Rorer not only pronounced macaroni more exotic than Pennsylvania Dutch noodles but also introduced this exciting “new” carb in her popular Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book (1886):
“Macaroni, as an article of food, is rather more valuable than bread, as it contains a large proportion of gluten. It is the bread of the Italian laborer. In this country, it is a sort of luxury among the upper classes; but there is no good reason, considering its price, why it should not enter more extensively into the food of our working classes.”
Leave it to Fannie Farmer and her Boston Cooking–School Cook Book (1896) to give us a quick–and–easy mac and cheese much like the recipe we use today:
“Put a layer of boiled macaroni in buttered baking dish, sprinkle with grated cheese, repeat, pour over White Sauce, cover with buttered crumbs, and bake until crumbs are brown.”
So when did macaroni elbow out spaghetti as the main ingredient? No one knows for sure, but my best guess is at the start of World War I, when, according to James Trager (The Food Chronology, 1995), made–in–America pasta was mass–produced for the first time. It’s hard to believe that these early companies, the majority founded by Italian immigrants, didn’t have old–country dies to extrude pasta dough into little tubes both elbowed and straight.
Still, it took the Great Depression to send mac and cheese mainstream. No longer a luxury, it fed millions of Americans during the down–and–out ’30s—easily, deliciously. And it does to this day.
MACARONI AND CHEESE
Few American classics have undergone more changes over time than mac and cheese. My 21st–century version is on the table in less than an hour. Old–fashioned mac and cheese begins with a white sauce—so I thought, why not go with a top–quality bottled Alfredo sauce (like Newman’s Own), which needs no cooking? After all, mac and cheese came to us from Italy courtesy of Thomas Jefferson, so using this Parmesan–based sauce makes even more sense.
INGREDIENTS1/2 pound elbow macaroni
1 bottle (15 ounces) Alfredo sauce (such as Newman’s Own)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano–Reggiano
1 1/2 tablespoons instant flour such as Wondra
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) moderately coarsely grated sharp Cheddar cheese
2 slices firm–textured white bread
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
PREHEAT OVEN AND PREP CASSEROLE:
- Set oven temperature at 375°F.
- Spritz a 6–cup casserole well with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
- Following package directions, boil macaroni until al dente, then drain in a large colander, shaking it briskly to drain as much water as possible.
WHILE MACARONI IS BOILING, PREPARE SAUCE:
- Combine Alfredo sauce, Parmigiano–Reggiano, flour, mustard, and hot pepper sauce in a small bowl and set aside.
- Spread one–third of the drained macaroni over the bottom of the casserole.
- Top with one–third of the sauce, then one–third of the grated Cheddar. Repeat twice.
- Tear bread into a food processor, drizzle in the melted butter, and pulse quickly until the texture resembles coarse meal. Scatter topping evenly over all.
BAKE MACARONI AND CHEESE:
- Slide onto the middle oven shelf and bake uncovered 25 to 30 minutes until bubbling and tipped with brown.
- Rush the casserole from oven to table and serve as the main course of a family lunch or supper.
- Accompany with a tartly dressed salad of crisp greens.
- If Cheddar is to melt smoothly without “stringing,” choose a well–aged one and grate it on the second–coarsest side of a four–sided grater.
- To temper the sharpness of the Cheddar, I’ve added Parmigiano–Reggiano, which most high–end supermarkets sell in chunks or freshly grated. It’s mellow, nutty, even faintly sweet. Not so, the salty domestic Parmesans grated who–knows–when.
The recipe in this story has not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.
An award–winning food and travel journalist, Jean Anderson is a member of the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. Her latest book, Falling off the Bone, was published by Wiley last fall.