Macaroni and cheese comprised a large part of my childhood eats. And chances are, if you were born in America, the stuff made its way to your dinner table (or couch) every once in a while. Little wonder it’s long been the reigning king of weeknight meals, backyard barbecues, and church potlucks. After all, there is pasta and cheese involved.
Here recently in Nashville, we’ve had the unique joy of 60 degree mornings. Just yesterday, I stepped out for a walk and found myself in need of a sweater. It got me thinking of fall. In turn, it got me thinking of all kinds of warm, rich, comforting foods. At the top of the list was mac n’ cheese.
While mac n’ cheese is certainly a stalwart offering in the American comfort food canon, it’s been around in some form for quite a long time. In fact, the Forme of Cury, a 14th century English cookbook had a recipe for something called makerouns (as in macaroni), a casserole of hand-cut pasta with butter and cheese. For your fascination, I’ve included the recipe in the original middle English below:
“Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth.”
While I have a special place in my heart for Velveeta Shells and Cheese, the recipe I’ve included below hearkens back to the middle ages. In other words, this dish is not for the faint of heart. It is, of course, creamy and decadently rich. But standing at the forefront is a bold, earthy funk, thanks to the clothbound and washed-rind cheeses. Yes, you could certainly substitute these for a mild, classic cheddar. But if that’s the case, save yourself the time and trouble and let Velveeta do the work.
For those of you still with me, tantalized by the prospect of something funky and intense, I salute you.
14th Century Mac n’ Cheese
3 cups shells or conchiglie pasta, uncooked
2 oz tallegio cheese
3 oz Neal’s Yard clothbound cheddar
4 oz cave-aged Gruyére
1 cup milk
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter
1 cup bread crumbs
Before we begin, fill a large pot with hot water and place it on the boil. Season generously with salt.
To make the bread crumbs, I suggest using rustic, days-old bread. If you’re in a pinch, toast up whatever bread you have under the broiler and then throw it into a food processor. Or, if you want to keep it even more rustic, chop it finely with a knife. I can’t stress just how delicious the bread crumbs are in this dish.
Today, we’ll be making a béchamel sauce. If you’re a Southerner, I’m talking about gravy. All of those intense cheeses need a form of transport. And by adding them to a cream sauce, they’ll melt down and effectively cover every nook and cranny of the pasta. So, the béchamel.
In a medium-sized pan, melt your butter on medium heat. To the butter, add the flour and stir to mix well. This is a roux, and it serves to thicken sauces, gravies, soups, etc. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, until the color just begins to change and it smells like roasted almonds.
A little at a time, we’ll add the milk to the roux. Have a whisk ready so that you can incorporate the milk into the roux. You don’t want any lumps. Little by little, add the milk, whisking gently but constantly, until a gravy forms. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer.
As the béchamel simmers, let’s cut the cheese. Consider this practice for what might come hours after eating this dish. For the softer tallegio, which might not cut well, don’t worry about it. Be sure to reserve a small handful of cheese, which will be used later to melt onto the top of the pasta. Raise the heat slightly and pour the cheese into the béchamel a little at a time, stirring well to incorporate. Lower the heat once again, being sure to stir occasionally.
When the water boils, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and pour into a mixing bowl. Pour the cheesy béchamel sauce over the pasta and stir so that the pasta is completely coated.
Turn on the broiler to its highest setting. Into small ramekins, place a generous amount of the pasta and cheese mixture (it should rise well above the rim of the ramekin). Layer the reserved cheese on top of the pasta and cover generously with the bread crumbs. Place the ramekins on a sheet pan and place them under the broil. Let cook until the bread crumbs begin to darken and char and the cheese begins to bubble and crisp.
Though you may sense a strong and immediate urge to dip your face into the ramekin, allowing a molten-hot, rich, creamy cheese-lather to drip down your chin, it’s better to wait a minute or two.
For the full effect, this 14th century mac n’ cheese is best enjoyed while wearing a woolen cloak and complaining of chills and fever.