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Mac and cheese: A founding father’s food?

Mon amour... Arguably, macaroni and cheese is the most loved and treasured of dishes by the country's children. It's on just about every children's menu.


I don't know many kids (and adults) who dislike macaroni and cheese.


I'd like to believe you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone with a disdain for its ooey-gooey goodness.


Now don't get me wrong, in a pinch I'll make boxed macaroni and cheese, but I graduated from making boxed macaroni and cheese exclusively when I took home economics class in high school.


For all of the creations taught by the teacher, her mac and cheese recipe stuck with me, and I've made it this same way ever since. She explained and demystified the French process of making a roux (pronounced roo). It's comforting food that evokes memories for generations.


As it should be.


It's as American as hot dogs and apple pie, even though the dish has roots from France and England, it was a historic founding father (of cuisine) who brought it home to The New World.

A look at the history of the 'Ghost in America's Kitchen'

Everyone knows macaroni and cheese a little differently, and if you would ask 10 people, you are likely to receive eight different recipes.

If you've ever eaten macaroni and cheese, French fries or ice cream, you've enjoyed the contributions of America's unknown culinary founding father, James Hemings.


James Hemings was the first American trained as a master chef. He was also the brother-in-law and enslaved property of Thomas Jefferson.


It is confirmed by historians that James Hemings (1765-1801) an American mixed-race slave owned and freed by Thomas Jefferson is the creator of American macaroni and cheese.

Hemings was an older brother of Sally Hemings and half-sibling of Jefferson’s wife Martha Jefferson. As a young man, Hemings was selected to accompany the Minister of France to Paris. There, Hemings was trained for years to be a French chef. He furthered his education by using his earned wages to study the language.


One of James Hemings’ signature dishes was mac and cheese, something that is a part of every household today. Known initially as macaroni pie, it was a high-end dish eaten exclusively by the wealthy during the early years of our nation.


Hemings’ legacy of baked mac and cheese continued long after the Emancipation Proclamation in the 1860s. Macaroni and cheese began to have new meanings and multiple identities in the Black community becoming “a celebratory dish, a convenient comfort food, and a meal stretcher for impoverished families.”


We recognize this dish today as soul food.


According to Netflix’s soul food documentary “High On The Hog,” where an all-Black creative team tells the story of African-American food, baked mac and cheese was initially cooked by Hemings in a mixture of boiling water and milk.


Hemings placed cheese in between layers of butter and milk-coated macaroni, then baked it in a Dutch oven over an open-hearth fireplace stove with hot coals placed on the pot’s lid to bake.


Another documentary, “James Hemings: Ghost in America's Kitchen” discusses the life, contributions, and erasure of America's culinary founding father. Exploring the history are food historians, celebrated chefs, experts on race and the African-American diaspora. Through their words and the persistence of a curious chef, Ashbell McElveen, the life of America's missing icon comes into focus.


A true history lesson in love, passion, and the American way.


Perhaps this February you can honor your mon amour and Hemings by cooking food that not only comes from the heart but also the soul.


Bon Appetit!


 

Cooking Class with Carol

Baked mac and cheese is the universal comfort food. There are so many variations of this fan favorite. In fact, I almost didn’t share this recipe, as there are so many mac and cheese recipes available, and most people already have their favorite way of making it. Feel free to take this one and change it if you wish to make it your own.


Preparing all of your measured ingredients ahead of time is important for making macaroni and cheese. Once you begin making the roux, there isn't much room for error.


Measure all of the spices and add them at the same time. This step saves time and allows you to continually stir the roux.

The Roux

A roux, pronounced “roo,” is one of the building blocks of cooking. It’s a fundamental technique for cooks to learn, and one of the first things taught in culinary school. It’s the secret to making silky sauces, rich gravies, and luscious mac and cheese.


It is a ratio of fat and flour. Usually, the ratio is one-to-one. What that means typically is one tablespoon of butter for every tablespoon of flour to one cup of liquid. You will be able to tell the thickness of the roux once that mixture comes to a boil. Practice makes perfect so you will have to work on the perfect roux. Typical French techniques use butter, but you can substitute oil for butter – just not in this recipe, please. Stick with butter. (Pun intended!)


Use a long whisk to make roux. I use a whisk designed with wires that will get into the sides of the pot to move roux around. It's also helpful for smoothing out the mixture.


That gets tricky when you are boiling milk, so constantly watch for the precise time to boil.


You can make a "thinner" roux by reducing the amount of flour. You can always thin out a roux after the boiling process to determine the thickness by whisking in more liquid.


We will be making a white roux for this recipe.

The 3 types of roux

Depending on how long you cook your roux, the color can range from pale white to dark brown. Each roux has its own unique use, and they are not interchangeable, so it’s important to know the differences.


1. White roux: A white roux is the most common type of roux used to thicken sauces. The flavor is mild and it has the strongest thickening power of all three roux types. It’s most often used to thicken white sauces such as béchamel, country gravy and cheese sauce. It does not impart a noticeable color or flavor. It’s also somewhat thicker and more textured than a darker roux. The longer you cook it, the smoother it becomes.


2. Blonde roux: Similar to a white roux, a blonde roux can be used to thicken any white sauce. It’s cooked for a few minutes longer than a white roux and develops a mild, nutty flavor. A blonde roux is traditionally used to thicken velouté (stock thickened with a roux) and has slightly less thickening power.

3. Brown roux: A brown roux is the least common type of roux and is used for only a handful of cooking applications. The flavor is strong and imparts a nutty, toasted flavor to whatever it is added to. Traditionally brown roux is used to thicken rich sauces such as sauce espagnole, and is one of the main flavoring components in gumbo. Brown roux has the least thickening power out of all three roux.

Pasta

For this recipe, cook the pasta two minutes less than the box directions. Drain well. Pasta will be al dente, slightly undercooked. That's OK, as it will finish cooking in the oven. If you are not baking the macaroni and cheese, cook for 30 seconds less than box directions. The residual heat from the sauce will finish cooking the pasta.

Ingredients

4 tablespoons of unsalted butter (divided equally)

4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour

1 cup of shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

1 cup of shredded Colby-Jack cheese

1 teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of white pepper

1 teaspoon of garlic powder

1 teaspoon of onion powder

2 teaspoons of dried mustard

2 teaspoons of paprika

4 cups of milk**

1 pound (16 ounce) uncooked macaroni noodles

**Substitute 3 cups of milk for stockpot water to cook in the style of Hemings.

What to do

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  2. In a stockpot, bring enough water to cook pasta to a boil.

  3. Use a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat to make the roux. Add butter and flour. Mix well with a whisk. Cook to white roux stage (see above) for three to four minutes.

  4. Add spices, salt and pepper. Whisk in the milk, slowly to ensure a smooth sauce.

  5. Continue to cook roux/milk until just at boiling, this will determine the thickness of your sauce.

  6. Turn off the heat and slowly add two cups of cheese until creamy. We call it the “ooey gooey stage.” Reserve the remaining cheese for the top.

  7. Meanwhile, cook the pasta for two minutes less than box directions. Drain well, but reserve some pasta water if you need to thin the sauce.

  8. Pasta will be al dente, slightly undercooked. That's OK, it will finish in the oven. If you are not baking the macaroni and cheese, cook for 30 seconds less than box directions. The residual heat from the sauce will finish cooking the pasta.

  9. In a large bowl, combine noodles and cheese sauce, taking care to incorporate them well. It may look a little thin, but it will thicken in the oven. If it looks too thick, slowly and in small quantities add the pasta water until a smooth thinner consistency is reached.

  10. Liberally butter the bottom and sides of a deep baking dish. Add mac and cheese until full. Sprinkle top with any remaining cheeses.

  11. Cover the pan with parchment and foil and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove foil and parchment and bake for an additional 10 minutes until the top is browned and the noodles have pulled away from the sides.

  12. Allow the mac and cheese to stand for 10-15 minutes to set up before serving.

By the way, no one in my house follows the last direction.


Enjoy!




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