Classic Macaroni and Cheese

This is the kind of macaroni and cheese that my mother made with a creamy cheese sauce. She started by making a white sauce, that wonderful French “mother sauce” named after the Marquis de Béchemel. I never heard her say she was making a Béchemel sauce, but that is what she was doing.

In fact she was making an American version of Mornay sauce, which is Béchemel sauce with cheese added. It is that creamy cheese sauce that makes macaroni and cheese one of the most popular foods in the United States.

Mornay sauce is traditionally made with Gruyère and Parmesan cheeses, but people from Wisconsin know that the best macaroni and cheese is made with good aged Wisconsin Cheddar.

When you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, you may find that the cheese sauce is not as yellow as what you usually get when preparing a batch from a box. That’s because the manufacturers add artificial color or annato to produce that bright yellow. I suppose you could do the same, but a good sharp cheddar gives a lovely soft yellow that contrasts nicely with a barbecued rib on your plate.

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
4 T butter
4 T all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
Dash of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. ground mustard
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 cups whole milk
2 cups shredded medium or sharp Cheddar cheese
Dash of hot sauce (optional)

PROCEDURE:

Start heating the water for the macaroni and preheat the oven to 350º. Grate the cheese. Heat the milk to about 140º in a saucepan or microwavable dish.

Cook the macaroni according to instructions on the package just to al dente. Do not overcook it as it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain the macaroni and return it to the cooking pot.

Melt the butter in a three-quart saucepan over medium low heat. Blend the flour, salt, peppers, mustard and Worcestershire sauce into the butter. You are making a white roux. Keep stirring with a wooden spoon and cook until you have a smooth bubbly mixture. Once the roux is bubbling, cook it for a minute then add the hot milk and heat it to boiling. The sauce will thicken as the roux cooks.

After the sauce has thickened and is bubbling again, keep stirring for another minute or so. Reduce the heat to very low and stir in the cheese until you have a smooth sauce.

Pour the sauce over the macaroni and mix it gently with the pasta. Put the mixture into an ungreased two-quart casserole and bake uncovered for about twenty minutes until it begins to bubble.

NOTES: If you wish, feel free to use a little more cheese. You also might want to add a dash of hot sauce once you have stirred the cheese into the sauce. It adds complexity to the flavor, and at least to our taste, does not make it too spicy.

Macaroni and cheese has been around for a long time. At least 700 years ago, Italian cooks were layering pasta and cheese and baking it into a tasty casserole. By the time Thomas Jefferson settled down for some good eating and drinking in Paris as the Minister to France representing the newly founded United States, French chefs had perfected a recipe for macaroni and cheese.

Clearly Jefferson enjoyed it, for he sketched the pasta and described the extrusion process used to make it. He bought a machine for making it and later imported both macaroni and Parmesan cheese, which was the cheese used for the recipe at that time. In 1802, when he was President, Jefferson served a “macaroni pie” at a state dinner.

Early in the 19th century, Jefferson’s young granddaughter, Virginia Randolph, copied the recipes Jefferson brought back from France along with many of those he enjoyed at Monticello and in the White House. In the late 1930‘s this handwritten book was given to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation by Jefferson’s great-great granddaughter. The foundation gave permission to the historian Marie Kimball to publish the collection as Thomas Jefferson’s Cookbook.

The cookbook includes a recipe for “Macaroni” and another for “Macaroni Pudding.” Here is the one simply called “Macaroni.” If the quantities were increased to serve the ten or twelve guests usually invited to such affairs, this may well be the dish served at the state dinner.

“Break macaroni in small pieces, there should be 2 cupfuls, and boil in salted water until tender. Grate 1/4 pound of cheese and mix with the same amount of butter. Stir into macaroni and bake like polenta.” (The polenta recipe says to “Bake in a moderate oven until the cheese is thoroughly melted.”) This recipe, which does not use any sauce, is like the one for Gus Gauch’s Macaroni and Cheese.

Jefferson was clearly fond of dessert puddings, as there are dozens in the cookbook. “Macaroni Pudding” is one of them.

“Cook macaroni in milk until tender. Two ounces to a pint of milk will make a good-sized pudding. Add five eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, flavor with lemon or rose water and bake one hour.”

Jerri says it sounds good. I am not sure, but I would be willing to try it.

We bought our copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Cookbook years ago in Virginia, but your local bookseller can get you a copy in case you want to explore the cuisine of one of our greatest Presidents.

Avatar of Chuck Rang

About Chuck Rang

Born in Ashland, Wisconsin, grew up near Hayward, lives in New Richmond, messing around in kitchens more than 60 years.
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One Response to Classic Macaroni and Cheese

  1. Didi says:

    Chuck I love this story and am going to try your recipe! Will let you know how I do.
    I really love the Jefferson story as I have always been enthralled with his knowledge of everything! Just love you blog! Hope to see you at the Koeppls again!

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