Once upon a time, in mystic days when moms stayed home, made all their children’s clothes, milked the cows and cooked every meal, macaroni and cheese was a staple. It’s the all-American food, introduced to our culture by none other than Thomas Jefferson.
Seriously. Historians agree, and letters exist documenting a dinner with President Jefferson. “A pie called macaroni” was served, and I’m betting it wasn't custard.
Why was macaroni and cheese so popular for 200 years? Cooking up a big casserole of macaroni and cheese was a pretty easy way to feed a large family and get rid of all leftover cheese, said Joan McNamara, the owner of Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles.
I think she’s right. I use her recipe today because it’s so forgiving. And the World’s Worst Cook needs nothing more than forgiveness.
My own mother had a recipe for macaroni and cheese, too, but I can’t use it. I loved my mother, but when it came to cheese, she knew of only one brand: Velveeta. I was raised on macaroni and Velveeta. It was great comfort food when I was a child.
However, I grew up, moved out and discovered Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese in the little blue box. To me, it was gourmet.
I began ordering macaroni and cheese when I dined out and discovered a whole world of cheese blends and seasonings. Whether the style is Italian or Southern soul food, great macaroni and cheese layers complex flavors in a way that can't be matched by a processed mix.
The French make it with Mornay sauce. Some cooks add flour or top the casserole with Panko. Others add bacon, bread crumbs, spices or peppers. Americans prefer aged Cheddar cheese, but artisanal varieties are making a mark as well. Gruyere, Marscapone, Ricotta—no cheese is off limits.
Well, almost no cheese. I draw the line at blueberry-encrusted chevre.
The point is that we have evolved. Kraft? Velveeta? Please. Those flavors are so 20th century.
So here is the recipe from Joan’s on Third. When she gave me this—well, when she passed out the photocopies to my tour group—she gave a warning against the recipe.
“Use whatever cheese you have,” she advised. That’s the point!
Joan had to put some names of cheese in the recipe because, well, it’s a recipe. “8 ounces of whatever” is just not allowed. But I’ve found that each time I make it using different cheeses it’s a little different in a good way.
Joan’s original recipe filled a 13 by 9 inch cake pan. I halved it because I’m not cooking for a restaurant full of people.
Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from a Joan’s on Third’s recipe)
1/2 pound pasta (elbow macaroni, fusilli, or any shape desired)
1 ounce butter
1 and ¾ cups whole milk
3 ounces ricotta or small curd cottage cheese
1 and 1/2 ounces cream cheese or crème fraiche
6 ounces Monterey Jack (or other mild cheese), shredded
6 ounces Gouda (or other cheese), shredded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
An additional 4 ounces Gouda (or other cheese), shredded, for top
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until tender. Drain well.
Add butter, milk, ricotta or cottage cheese, cream cheese, Monterey Jack, and 6 ounces of Gouda to the warm pasta. Season with salt and pepper. Gently mix everything together, leaving some chunks of cheese.
Pour the mixture into a 2-quart casserole or baking pan. You can also use two 1-quart casseroles. Top with the remaining 4 ounces of Gouda or other cheese. Bake uncovered until golden, 30 to 40 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.