Bulldog Cuisine: Mac & Cheese a la Monticello

If a man cannot or will not cook, he is not a man. All REAL men – manly men, if you will – know how to cook, and by cook I don’t mean scurry around a studio kitchen yelling “BAM!” and cooking stuff most ordinary chefs don’t cook, like that wretched little Emeril does on his stupid Food Network show. Honestly…what kind of serious chef has his own studio band, complete with an African-American Doc Severinsen? I learned to cook because my mother – God rest her soul – was a superb cook. When I moved out and lived on my own, I had no choice but to teach myself the arcane ways of the kitchen.

It is a little-known fact of American culinary history that Thomas Jefferson – author of the Declaration of Independence – often jonesed for baked macaroni and cheese. However, the story that he invented the dish simply isn’t true:

Jack MacLaughlin sheds some light on Jefferson’s relationship to Macaroni in his book Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder:

Macaroni was a highly fashionable food in late eighteenth-century Paris, and Jefferson not only enjoyed the dish but also commissioned William Short to purchase a machine for making it. The machine was later shipped to America. Jefferson also investigated the manufacture of macaroni during his trip to northern Italy and drew a sketch with detailed notes on the extrusion process. When Short was in Italy, he sampled the local product and concluded that the cooks of Paris made better pasta than he could get at Naples. Apparently, the macaroni machine that Short bought was either not durable or unsatisfactory, for in later years Jefferson imported macaroni and Parmesan cheese from Marseilles for his use at Monticello. While in France, he also copied a recipe for making macaroni (“Nouilly a maccaroni”) without a machine. This recipe makes clear that what was eaten as macaroni was what Americans today would term spaghetti — the dough was rolled thin and cut into strips, and each strip was then rolled with the hands into a noodle shape.

So it seems that Jefferson may have served pasta and cheese, but when he did the recipe was already in wide use in Europe. Marlena Spieler, author of Macaroni and Cheese, writes that:

The first written recipe [for macaroni and cheese] seems to be from The Experienced English Housekeeper, by a Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald. Published in 1769, it appears to be the forerunner of our own American classic: bechamel sauce with Cheddar, mixed with macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, then baked until bubbly and golden. Another recipe, macaroni a la reine (“Macaroni in the style of the queen”), made from a similar mixture of pasta, cream, and melty cheese (often Gruyere), appeared frequently in British cookery books until relatively recent times.

So there you have it. No one knows exactly who invented mac and cheese, but it wasn’t Jefferson, though he seems to have been a fan of it.

Enough of the history…on to the recipe:

Ingredients

½ lb. elbow macaroni
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1 tbsp powdered mustard
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp dried thyme
¼ tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
3 cups light cream (make sure it’s cold)
½ cup yellow onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten
8 ounces extra sharp New York or Vermont Yellow Cheddar, shredded

Topping:

4 oz. shredded extra sharp NY or VT Yellow Cheddar
4 oz. butter, melted and tossed with 1 cup panko bread crumbs

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Bring one gallon of water and 2 tbsp kosher salt to the boil in a large pot on high heat. Add the macaroni and when the water comes back to the boil, reduce heat to medium and continue boiling for no more than exactly 6 minutes (use a timer). Remove pot from the stove, immediately drain into a colander and rinse for 30 seconds with cold water to stop the cooking process.

In a large sauce pot on medium heat, melt the butter and wait for the foaming to subside. Whisk in the flour and continue stirring for 3 or 4 minutes to cook out the starch. Then add the mustard, paprika, thyme, pepper, salt, bay leaf and mined onion and stir for another minute or so before adding the light cream. Continue whisking until the mixture begins to thicken, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the burner and prepare to temper the egg mixture.

While constantly stirring the beaten egg in a small bowl, add a tablespoon of the hot sauce. Repeat two more times and then return the mixture to the sauce pot, whisking briskly to fully incorporate it. Within a minute, the sauce will begin to thicken. At that point, remove the bay leaf and discard, then fold in shredded cheddar and stir until the cheese is melted.

Fold the macaroni into the cheese sauce and then pour the mixture into a 2-quart casserole dish. Top with remaining cheddar cheese and then spread the buttered bread crumbs evenly over everything.

Place on middle rack of the oven and bake for 30 minutes until the bread crumbs are golden brown. Remove from oven and rest for five minutes before serving.

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