ITALIAN WHITE SAUCE PASTA VS AMERICAN MAC AND CHEESE
We all know Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Loved by people of all ages, a steaming hot bowl of Pasta and melted cheese has the incredible quality to make everything right with the world!
But do you know who originally suggested combining elbow macaroni with creamy cheese and creating this simple yet perfectly complementary concoction?
History of Mac and cheese
As you guessed, mac and cheese originates in Italy, home to many culinary delights. An Italian book of cooking named the "Liber de Coquina" ("Book of Cooking") from the 13th century has a recipe called "de lasanis". Many food historians insist this is the first Macaroni and cheese recipe.
The "de lasanis" recipe has sheet pasta cut into 2-inch (5-centimeter) squares, cooked in water, and tossed with grated cheese, most probably Parmesan. Macaroni and cheese grew in popularity across Europe from this time onwards.
New England church suppers served casserole dishes like today's mac and cheese in colonial America. They probably originated from "receipts," or recipes, passed along amongst English relatives.
Macaroni and cheese was mostly restricted to the upper classes till the Industrial Revolution enabled quicker and easier production of Pasta.
Many historians credit Thomas Jefferson for introducing Macaroni and cheese to the United States. But this doesn't seem right. Jefferson did not introduce Macaroni (with or without cheese) to America or invent the recipe. It is possible that Thomas Jefferson helped popularize Macaroni and cheese because he likely served it to dinner guests while president.
But it was Jefferson's slave, the black chef James Hemmings, who perfected the recipe.
While in Europe, Hemmings learned French cooking techniques. This was before Thomas Jefferson became the president. When they returned to America, James Hemmings introduced his spin on Macaroni and cheese.
Hemmings also taught the recipe to his brother Peter Hemmings, who later served "pie called macaroni" at a state dinner hosted by Jefferson at the White House, introducing mac and cheese to America's elite.
In due course, Mary Rudolph took over hostess duties at the White House when Jefferson's wife died. She included a macaroni recipe made with Parmesan cheese in her cookbook written in 1824 named "The Virginia Housewife."
At the end of the Great Depression in 1937, Kraft Foods introduced the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner. This product became a game-changer in the fledgling fast-food industry.
Marketed as "the housewife's best friend" and "a nourishing one-pot meal," the Kraft Mac and Cheese Dinner was a cheap, quick, and filling way to feed a family.
In 1937 alone, Kraft sold 8 million boxes of its Mac and Cheese Dinner. The wild, incredible popularity of Kraft dinners continues even today!
While original Italian/homemade recipes included Pasta, butter or cream, and Parmesan cheese, American cooks often improvised, using cheddar, Colby, or more affordable processed cheese. They also added spices like nutmeg and mustard.
Today, gourmet versions of Mac & Cheese use a variety of cheeses, including Gruyère, smoked Gouda, and goat, and add-ins like bacon, tomatoes, shallots, and more.
Why don't Italians eat Mac and Cheese?
- It has Cheddar - Yes, of course, cheddar is an excellent cheese, but an English one! Period. You won't often find traditional dishes like Pasta paired with non-Italian ingredients in Italy. Since cheddar is English cheese, a recipe for Pasta topped with this cheese won't probably catch on in Italy.
- What is Macaroni?! - This will shock you, but in Italy, Macaroni does not exist, or rather, they are not how you imagine them to be! Firstly, Italians say "Maccheroni," which differs from American Elbow Macaroni.
Italian Maccheroni is a type of short Pasta with a tubular shape and is externally grooved. American Macaroni is always tubular but with a much smaller section. It's also curved and smooth on the outside.
An Italian pasta shape that looks a lot like Macaroni Elbow is Cellentani. If you are in Italy and you want to cook Mac & Cheese pasta, you can use Cellentani for that shape.
- Consistency - Every Italian has different tastes in Pasta, but everyone agrees on one thing without exception – cooking it "al dente." Not a single dish of Pasta, even those baked in the oven, must be overcooked.
Since Mac & Cheese is an Anglo-American recipe, cooking al dente is never among the priorities of the recipe. Additionally, Pasta that is already cooked and then submerged in a sauce made with milk and cheese is undoubtedly delicious. But it's also overcooked with a pulpy consistency, and that's very far from Italian tastes.
- Paprika - Using spices like paprika in traditional Italian cuisine is not usual/familiar. Italians usually confine it to ethnic recipes. American mac & cheese and Italian Pasta are two different worlds for Italians. Although paprika is one of the most versatile spices used in Italy, too, Italians never combine it with their classic dishes.
- Seriously?? Is it a side dish?! - In America, Mac and Cheese are often eaten as a side dish paired with a main course at home and in restaurants.
In Italy, this is not even remotely imaginable!! Italians never use Pasta as a side dish but as a primary and solitary dish; that's why it is called the Main course in Italy!
Winding it up
While no single cook can claim the classic Macaroni and cheese recipe, everyone has a favorite version. Now, whether your Mac & Cheese comes in a blue box or features a wide range of gourmet ingredients, there's nothing like it for warmth and comfort.
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