While today’s macaroni and cheese doesn’t resemble the original Italian dish of the 13th century, it is also more than what the Kraft Company would have you believe. Real macaroni and cheese is a gourmet dish of perfectly cooked pasta enrobed in a cheesy béchamel sauce and when it’s au gratin, a flavourful, crunchy topping is added before being baked to integrate the best flavour into one experience. In my opinion, a good macaroni and cheese should be left to a good chef.
“It’s the most popular dish on our menu,” says Megan Hingston of The Merchant Ale House of their macaroni and cheese dish. “We have customers who come in repeatedly, just for that dish.”
Hingston uses evaporated milk because it stabilizes the sauce, “when there is so much fat (from the cheese), you need a stabilizer or it will fall apart.” Sure there’s smoky bacon in it, “who doesn’t love bacon,” she explains and it helps to cut through the richness of the dish with a kick. On the top of the Merchant’s macaroni and cheese dish is a buttery panko crumb that adds crunch and flavour to the creamy noodles. “For mac and cheese lovers, it’s the best.”
Baked or stirred; orange or white; crusted or plain; Paleo or Vegetarian, experts speculate that this year alone, over 60% of all adults will eat a dish of mac + cheese, while a whopping 80% of children will eat it once if not twice in any given week! But let’s get one thing perfectly clear, they’re not looking for the same thing. Out of those 60% of adults, 100% of them are looking for more than orange dust from a box.
The Moose and Pepper Bistro on Valley Way in Niagara Falls has an upscale Lobster Mac N’ Cheese on their menu. When asked, Chef/Owner Tim O’Donnell admits to never trying the boxed version with the orange dust because when he was growing up, “my mother always made her own macaroni and cheese and the one I make here is a lot like hers.”
O’Donnell’s mac and cheese is a little more than a cross between the classic version with Parmesan cheese and a modern version with old cheddar. O’Donnell’s version includes an Irish twist, “my mother always added tomatoes. I marinate diced tomatoes in a blend of oil and spices, then add them when I mix it all together.” He’s referring to tossing the pasta with the melted cheese, cold lobster claws and savoury, diced tomatoes.
O’Donnell’s macaroni and cheese is cheesy rich with a sweet elegance that only lobster can add and a fresh, lusciousness from the marinated tomatoes. “It’s become one of the favourite pasta dishes in the restaurant,” he adds.
While O’Donnell doesn’t see the purpose of a crusty topping for his stove-top, gourmet dish, Hingston is adamant that part of her macaroni and cheese pack- age is to top it with a toasted, buttered, panko crumb and baked low and slow in the oven.
These versions of mac and cheese as delicious as they are, are a long way from their Italian roots. In fact, you probably wouldn’t recognize the first Italian version that is more like an Alfredo sauce over small squares of lasagna noodles than the orange twisted version today. When I made this comment to Anthony Pingue, owner of Napoli Ristorante and Pizzeria in Niagara Falls, he scoffs, “no self respecting Italian restaurant would have Alfredo sauce (on their menu)” and I’m left to conclude that no self respecting Italian restaurant would have Macaroni and Cheese on their menu either.
“In Italy, it’s Pasta con Panna,” he corrects and goes on to explain the Italian version of macaroni and cheese. “My mother would make a quick pasta dish of Parmigiano Reggiano, butter and olive oil. That was our macaroni and cheese. I didn’t know what the box of macaroni and cheese was until I went to college.” Today Pingue makes his mothers’ macaroni and cheese dish for his own children and like (or unlike) the chefs in this story, adds other ingredients, “I maybe add some rappini or peas for a vegetable.”
But in other restaurants, chefs are making the more common North American versions. Chef Beth Ashton of August Restaurant in Beamsville adds soft, savoury, robust, roasted butternut squash and bacon to the smoky, cheddar cheesy, macaroni. Soft and creamy, the butternut squash melts along with the thick, cheese sauce for a graceful classic version dotted with bacon and an overall smoky essence that wraps around the psyche on a cold winters day. This is de nitely another gourmet version you’ll need to try.
Like there is no one version of macaroni and cheese for chefs, there is also, no one recipe for macaroni and cheese for the home cook. Some recipes use a single cheese like sharp cheddar and others would rather stir in cream cheese; some use ketchup and others use tomato paste. Pastas range from penne to fusilli to elbow macaroni. I discovered that Martha Stewart prefers to use one single cheese, white cheddar while Food & Wine magazine blends white cheddar with Gorgonzola and Parmesan.
What I’ve discovered is that the name macaroni and cheese is only a recommendation with no limits to what gets stirred into the cheese. The North American version has about five times more cheese in it than the classic Italian versions and while North American chefs are focusing on the creativity coming from the new ingredients they can add to it, Pingue who’s ancestral pride in the original peasant dish never wavers, says, “it’s only as good as the ingredients used in the dish.” Amen.