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From 'De lasanis' to M.E. mac 'n' cheese with za'atar pesto

"cooks keep tinkering with macaroni cheese, oblivious to the way that, with their metaphorical dubs and bonus beats, they are frittering away the magic of the original." Tony Naylor

Apologies - I have been somewhat maudlin the past few days so today it's back to food. And a particular dish - macaroni cheese. Why macaroni cheese - or mac 'n' cheese as it is more commonly known today? Yes mac 'n' cheese because as Nigella says:

"After holding out for years against the insidious encroachment of the American appellation of mac 'n' cheese over here, insisting primly and pointedly on macaroni cheese, I have now officially given up. I know when I'm beaten. Besides, after a while, harrumphing over a change that's already happened becomes more than a little embarrassing. I was in danger of boring even myself. I can't stop calling it macaroni cheese when I mean the nursery staple I was brought up on, but otherwise I'm not going to quibble. Saying mac 'n' cheese still feels awkward to me, but I'll get over it."

Or - even more vehemently - Tony Naylor of The Guardian:

"Please note, we will refer to it as “macaroni cheese” throughout – not mac, not mac ‘n’ cheese, not crack ‘n’ cheese, in a stand against the constant renaming of foods in order to fuel the gastro-industrial complex and its appetite for novelty." Tony Naylor

So, macaroni cheese/mac'n' cheese because I finally got around to making the recipe I told you about a short time ago - Middle Eastern mac 'n'cheese with za'atar pesto from the Ottolenghi test kitchen - probably devised by Noor Murad, but it might have been Ottolenghi himself. It looked delicious, intriguing and even possibly disastrous - the ingredient list did not look at all right - cumin, coriander, za'atar? Besides, you didn't cook your macaroni and then bathe it in a sauce that you had made. Instead you cooked the macaroni in milk. Very intriguing and a tiny bit worrying. Would David like it? And yes he did - pronouncing it a 4 3/4 star dish. Wow. On the left what it's supposed to look like and on the right what it did look like. I think my onions were a tiny bit overdone, but no less delicious for that I might say. They were indeed very crispy. Possibly the first time I have managed to make crispy fried onions. And below the pictures is a video showing you how to do it - do have a go:

It was pretty lemony, the onions crunched deliciously and the za'atar and cumin definitely added a 'je ne sais quoi'. Texture was all in fact - well not quite all - it was just something totally different and making it was an absolute pleasure. I had not made anything from a recipe for a while. I suppose it took me a while, but none of it was difficult and I was taking it slowly - 'dancing in the kitchen' as Rachel Roddy described it. I was in the zone if you like. It got me out of my maudlin mindset.

Not very Italian though. To be honest I had a feeling that macaroni cheese was American anyway and not Italian at all. Something that Felicity Cloake took to be a plus:

"Whatever its alleged southern-Italian roots, it's a dish which we can safely embrace as an Anglo-American classic, which means I can merrily throw all notions of "authenticity" to the wind, and simply go with whatever tastes best." Felicity Cloake

Well she's not quite right as various people seem to agree that its very first appearance was in the 14th century in a southern Italian cookbook called Liber der Coquina, in which was described a Parmesan and pasta dish called De lasanis, which was made with a fermented dough cut into squares, tossed with cheese. This is the nearest to what that might have been that I could find. Although when I think about it I used to occasionally, for a quick lunch when I had some leftover pasta in the fridge, warm it up in the microwave with some grated cheese and some dried marjoram. Not very gourmet and not that good for me, but I did like it. And now I find, an ancient idea, although without the microwave.

However, that might be the last time the Italians recorded such a dish. You won't find a recipe for macaroni cheese in an Italian cookbook these days. Well there wasn't one in any of my Italian cookbooks.

In fact the next appearance of the dish is in England in the 14th century cookbook A Forme of Cury, in which there is a dish called Makerouns, which is described thus:

"Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on pieces, and cast hem on boiling water & seeþ it well. take cheese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth." A Forme of Cury

which Wikipedia translates as:

"Make a thin sheet of dough and cut it in pieces. Place them in boiling water and boil them well. Take cheese and grate it and add it and place butter beneath and above as with losyns [a dish similar to lasagne], and serve."

Maybe something like this 4 cheese lasagne. And I have to say that both of those medieval dishes do indeed sound rather more like early lasagne than macaroni cheese. So I think I'm going to discount these two origin stories. The only thing they have in common really is cheese and pasta.

Then we jump to 1769 and the very first written recipe for macaroni cheese - this time in England by Elizabeth Raffald.

"To dress Macaroni with Permasent [Parmasan] Cheese. Boil four Ounces of Macaroni ’till it be quite tender, and lay it on a Sieve to drain, then put it in a Tolling Pan, with about a Gill of good Cream, a Lump of Butter rolled in Flour, boil it five Minutes, pour it on a Plate, lay all over it Permasent Cheese toasted; send it to the Table on a Water Plate, for it soon goes cold."

Mrs. Beeton and all those other Victorian cooks also had versions, so maybe it's an English dish after all. I even found a version in my historical A Taste of London in Food and Pictures which features historical London food.

Now I can fully believe that Mrs. Raffald's recipe is a true 'origin' recipe and over time it has indeed evolved into the macaroni cheese that we all know and love - or hate. It actually took me years to like macaroni cheese because I think my first experience of it was in primary school lunches which were horrible. It was so gluggy and so cheesey. Back in my childhood I found cooked cheese absolutely repulsive - it made me gag. I think it was not until I discovered Robert Carrier that I came to like macaroni cheese. In his Robert Carrier Cookbook he has a recipe, credited to Romeo Salta and called Macaroni with three cheeses. Now that I have found it I think I remember making this a few times. It's pretty simple and I think would look pretty much like the picture below or Valli Little's version at the top of the page:

"1 pound macaroni; salt; 2-4 tablespoons butter, 6-8 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan; 4 tablespoons freshly grated Gruyère; 4 tablespoons freshly grated mozzarella cheese; freshly grated black pepper; 1/2 pint double cream.

Cook macaroni in boiling salted water until just tender. Drain.

Toss drained macaroni in a casserole with butter, then toss with the three cheeses. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper; add the cream and toss again. Bake in a moderately hot oven (200ºC) for 20 minutes, or until browned. Serves 4."

Simple. I suppose the other common version is to make a béchamel sauce and toss it in that, but that's rather more complicated. You definitely cook it in the oven though. Tony Naylor has his very particular opinions of what macaroni cheese should be, but I think the addition of the breadcrumbs and mustard is a modern one. The equivalent of Ottolenghi's onions I suppose.

"In its purest form, in perhaps its highest expression, macaroni cheese requires no more than al dente pasta (macaroni or penne, rigatoni is too big); a white sauce spiked with mustard and flavoured with mature cheddar and a little gruyere or Lincolnshire Poacher (Lancashire cheese is too tart and often melts oddly; mozzarella is too oily and stringy); and a topping of parmesan and breadcrumbs. There, you have everything you need: crunchiness, slippery pasta with a residual bite, a luxuriously unctuous sauce, logically interlocking layers of salty, cheesy savouriness and, in the background, a hint of heat to stop it becoming too overbearingly rich." Tony Naylor

But chefs, because they are chefs, just can't stop fiddling. Nigel Slater more or less follows Tony Naylor's thoughts on the subject with his Mustard and fontina macaroni cheese but, oh dear, he also has onion, a bay leaf and nutmeg in the mix as well.

Nigella strays even further from the path by doing weird things with eggs and evaporated milk - and that nutmeg again, and Jamie adds tomatoes to his simplest version - Quick tomato macaroni cheese - he has a few:

But what about the Americans, who are probably the ones responsible for the mac 'n' cheese thing? Well they have two origin stories - a church group in Connecticut and Thomas Jefferson - or rather his chef. Neither of these seem to have much proof attached.

One thing you can say though is that America is responsible for the notorious Kraft boxes of macaroni cheese, invented in 1937 and the first product to use powdered cheese. It was cheap and during the war you could get two packets for one stamp in your ration book, and so they were hugely popular. And they still exist. You can buy them in your local supermarket now. And you know I do have a vague memory of them in my childhood home. I'm not sure what you do with it - add water and cook? The other thing about this which demonstrates the changing times is that recently they had to remove the yellow dye that they used because of protests about chemical additives.

The Americans also seem to currently be into Lobster mac 'n' cheese - and Jamie Oliver has a perfectly revolting looking version of this - seen here. How more over the top can you get I wonder? This is definitely not an Italian thing as the Italians would never mix seafood and cheese. No it is definitely American and also pretty recent although nobody really seems to know who started this. It is obviously very popular though, because if you feed 'Lobster mac 'n' cheese' into Google you will find that just about everyone has a recipe from The Hairy Bikers to Thomas Keller.

Nigella isn't one of them, but she does present this Crab Mac 'n' cheese, introducing it with these words:

"this crab mac 'n' cheese is really my take on that American menu favourite of recent years, the tinglingly opulent, defiantly rich, deluxe-special lobster mac 'n' cheese.

It is perhaps inelegant of me to claim my version to be better, so let me just say I very much prefer it; it also happens to be a good deal more affordable. Crab offers the briny sweetness of lobster, but without its almost perfumed intensity, which can be quite heady enough even without a cheese sauce and pasta to accompany it. And for some reason, while the tender delicacy of lobster meat can be reduced to challenging richness when blanketed with cheeses, crabmeat subtly holds its own in this paprika-spiked cheese sauce, give it an almost honeyed depth, beguiling first, compelling to the finish."

Well she is of course singing her own praises and it won't be appearing in our house any time soon. This is a seafood free zone.

It is a classic comfort food though isn't it - macaroni cheese? Poor man's food. Not that good for you, but sustaining. And I think the proof of that is that it is available commercially in so many different ways in your supermarket - in Kraft's packet, in the frozen food section and the chilled food section. Maybe even in tins. Variations of recipes abound and just about every chef on the planet has had a go. I think the Ottolenghi version is possibly the most extreme version I have seen but then I don't do Instagram or TikTok. I bet someone has something weird on there. I think the one thing almost everyone agrees on is that it is not Italian - not even the pasta with three - or four - cheeses, which some seem to think might just be Italian. But that's fine because it means we can play around with it. The Italians don't like people to mess with their classics.

"basically, if we were ever to pronounce one recipe perfect, we'd miss out on the fun of aiming for the ideal. Because there is an ideal, Platonic macaroni cheese out there somewhere, I'm sure of it." o pistachio

"simplicity is the key to macaroni cheese... nothing should leap out at you except a clumsy, gooey richness".

Tom Norrington-Davies

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