Thinking Outside the Box: a History of Mac & Cheese
Whether from a box or homemade, we often think of mac and cheese as an American staple. But the iconic cheesy dish has a long, international history and different regional variations are still popular across Europe today. It would be easy to assume the cheesy pasta dish had origins in Italy, which is partially true, but the dish is more Swiss than you may expect.
The History of Mac & Cheese:
We do not know the exact origins of mac and cheese, but we can trace its evolution across Europe and its eventual commercialisation in North America. According to the International Pasta Organisation, the word macaroni itself dates to between 2000 and 1000 BC. The word can be traced to the Greek colony of Neopolis (modern day Naples) where macaria, possibly named after a Greek goddess, was a local dish made from barley-flour paste and water. However, these “macaroni” didn’t yet have the distinct tube-like shape we know and love today.
Our next mac development comes centuries later in the form of a recipe in the Liber de Coquina cookbook, published in the early 14th century by a Neapolitan cook. The recipe for a dish named ‘de lasanis’ included squares of sheet noodles sprinkled with grated cheese. Many historians believe this was the first-time pasta and cheese appeared together in print.
Approximately 100 years later the hollow tube pasta shape began to take form but not in Italy. Author Maestro Martino from Milano, Lombardy in what is today the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland published a landmark cookbook, titled Libro de Arte Coquinaria. Several macaroni dishes, along with instructions on how to make the macaroni shape by wrapping dough around a stick, can be found in the book. These dishes were usually garnished with butter, sweet spices, and cheese.
The rest of macaroni and cheese’s origins also point to Switzerland. The first macaroni-making machine dates to 1731 in the archives of Disentis Abbey in Switzerland, just 50km from the Italian border. In the mid 1800s a Bern published cookbook included a recipe for “Maccaroni” that used a combination of Parmesan and Swiss Emmental mixed with macaroni noodles and baked in an oven, much like our popular versions of today. To finally cement this Swiss origin story, the first ever commercial production of macaroni was at a pasta factory in Switzerland in 1872.
Our final “mac metamorphosis” comes from across the pond in 1930s America. Kraft Foods introduced its boxed mac and cheese in 1937. The food quickly rose to popularity, the Great Depression had led to families looking for cheap and easy meals. One box could feed a whole family for just 19 cents. With the introduction of rationing during World War II the boxed cheese meal became even more popular as many kitchen staples were in short supply. The dish is now a staple in many university students’ kitchens.
Mac and Cheese has now grown with the “instagramification” of the restaurant world. Specialty mac and cheese restaurants, like S’Mac in New York City, have popped up in many major cities offering fun twists on the classic dish. The popularity of these restaurants shows that mac and cheese is not only a centuries-old staple at this point, but also a dish that continues to evolve with exciting new flavours and mix-ins.
Our Favourite Mac and Cheese Add-Ins
· Potatoes, caramelised onions, and a side of applesauce (Alpine Swiss style)
· Deep fried mac and cheese balls
· BBQ or buffalo chicken
· "Fully loaded pizza" toppings
Mera’s Macaroni & Cheese Recipes
Stovetop Mac & Cheese
450 g pasta
55 g Mera butter
30 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
675 ml milk
170 g Mera American cheese, sliced
500 g Mera cheddar cheese, shredded
In a large pot, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, onion powder, salt and pepper.
In the same pot, melt the butter over medium heat and then whisk in the flour mixture, a little at a time, continuously whisking until the mixture is thick and starts to turn light brown, about a minute.
Slowly whisk in the milk and continue to whisk until the mixture starts to thicken, about 3 minutes.
Turn the heat to low and add the cheeses, whisking until melted.
Stir in the cooked pasta until thoroughly coated. Serve and enjoy!
Baked Mac & Cheese
Macaroni 250g macaroni
15g Mera unsalted butter
Topping 40 g panko breadcrumbs
30g Mera unsalted butter
1/4 tsp salt
Sauce 60g unsalted butter
50 g all purpose flour
750 ml milk
200 g Mera shredded cheddar cheese
100 g Mera shredded mozzarella cheese
3/4 tsp salt
Seasoning 1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp mustard powde
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add macaroni and cook to al dente.
Drain, return pasta to pot, add butter and toss until melted. Set aside to cool while making the sauce.
Mix together Topping. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 180°C.
In a large saucepan or in an ovenproof skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute.
Add about 1 cup of the milk and mix to dissolve the paste into the milk. Then add remaining milk and whisk until lump free.
Mix in salt and Seasonings if using.
Cook, whisking regularly, for 5 - 8 minutes until thickened to a cream consistency.
Remove from stove, add cheese and stir.
Pour Sauce into pot with Macaroni. Stir quickly, then pour back into the skillet or a baking dish. Sprinkle with breadcrumb topping.
Bake for 25 minutes or until top is light golden. Serve and enjoy!