Archive for the 'pasta' Category

Origin of a Dish: Macaroni and Cheese

An American classic.

Macaroni and Cheese is largely thought of as a modern dish, thanks to the “Kraft Dinner,” introduced in 1937 and used as rations during WWII.  But good ‘ol Mac n’ Cheese  has a much longer history.  In fact, I’ve already cooked up two different versions of this classic dish on this blog: a simple, 19th century version I ate during the Tenement Diet, and a more decadent recipe using neufchatel cheese during the Kellogg Diet.
Macaroni was possibly invented by the Romans, and was served with cheese sometime in the Medieval era (source).  The first documented occasion on which Macaroni and Cheese was served in America was at the White House in 1802, during Jefferson’s presidency. A guest at one of Jefferson’s dinner parties recounts his first experience with the dish (source):
“…A pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with onions or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not very agreeable. Mr. Lewis told me there was none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions were made of flour and butter, with particularly strong liquor mixed in them.”
The earliest known American recipe for macaroni and cheese appears in The Virginia Housewife, first published in 1824.  This is the recipe that we shall attempt today.
It seemed decadent to boil the macaroni in milk, but I gave it a whirl to stay true to the recipe.  While the pasta was cooking, it smelled sweet like a rice pudding; however, upon tasting it, I could discern no noticeable difference.  I think that this step could be left out, if you desire.
I used a Queso Blanco, an un-anged, simply made Mexican cheese.  I choose it for it’s similarity to farmer’s cheese, and other fresh cheeses used in the 19th c.

Macaroni and Cheese
from The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook By Mary Randolph, 1838 ed.
1/2 lb macaroni
1 quart whole milk
12 oz sliced farmer’s cheese, queso blanco, or queso fresco
1 stick unsalted butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Bring one quart milk and an equal amount of water to a rolling boil.  Add macaroni and cook, uncovered, until al dente, about 6 1/2 minutes.
2. Drain in a colander. While still in the colander, sprinkle pasta with about a 1/2 tsp salt, shake to combine, then sprinkle with about 1/2 tsp more (or to taste).
3. Our about 1/3 of the pasta into a casserole or baking dish.  Cover with 1/3 of the cheese and butter.  Repeat, ending with a layer of cheese and butter on top.
4.  Bake uncovered for 25-30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly.
My roommate and I took two bites and then made frowny faces at each other.  I don’t think this is the best incarnation of Mac and Cheese.  It tasted like buttery noodles.  And then…something was OFF with the cheese I bought.  It had an odd bitter/fishy taste. I don’t know if was the brand of cheese, or if the cheese was bad.  But I would take Kraft over this any day.

The Battle Creek Diet, Day 3

(Image: vintage Rice Krispie boxes from the Michigan Historical Museum.)

Breakfast: Toasted Rice Flakes, Grapefruit.
In the modern parlance, Toasted Rice Flakes are in fact Rice Krispies. Oddly enough, sitting down to my Snap, Crackle, and Pop, it was the first time during this experiment that I felt like connected to history. With every crunchy bite of this continually popular modern cereal made me think of the fashionable patients of The San, and the subsequent breakfast cereal craze that swept the nation. Thanks, Kellogg. Your cereals are delicious.

Lunch: Green Lima Bean Toast, Banana.

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I wasn’t crazy about my Lima Bean Toast. It was like complicated adult baby food. I used frozen beans that I cooked in the microwave, then made a paste by whirling it in my food processor. I made the “white sauce,” which is just a bechamel, and mixed the whole mess together. I spread it on some dry toast and ate it. I was unimpressed–maybe this is some Victorian mode of eating that is better left in the past.
Dinner: Macaroni Au Gratin, Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Fresh Spinach and The Queen of Puddings.

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Well, it’s Wednesday, and Wednesday means Lost and Top Chef. So tonight turned into an impromptu debut dinner party with the arrival of my boyfriend and two friends. And it went well–very well.

Everything in the meal was devoured. DEVOURED. The Macaroni I made essentially to the recipe; I threw some red pepper flakes into the water that macaroni boiled in (a trick from half a century earlier). I also added a cup of cottage cheese to the sauce, because I worried it wouldn’t be cheesy enough for my guests. I sprinkled a bit of additional melted cheese on top, and sprinkled with some lightly seasoned bread crumbs. It turned out very, very well; and the entire casserole was stuffed into tummys.. But you really can’t go wrong with mac and cheese.

The mashed sweet potatoes I prepared as one does a regular potatoes, with about a quarter stick of butter and a healthy helping of cream. They were amazing. I’ve been thinking for awhile now that sweet potatoes need to be a bigger part of my life. The spinach was simple, fresh spinach from bag, with a dressing made of vinegar, oil, and brown mustard.
But then, my crowing achievement: The Queen of Puddings.

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This is a recipe I was testing to go on the Dinner menu next month, and it turned out wonderfully. I made it more like a bread pudding–instead of using bread crumbs, I cubed some slightly stale bread and soaked it in the milk (and a little cream for good measure). Next I mixed in the eggs, sugar, and vanilla (a little cinnamon would not hurt, either). I put it in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes.
In the meantime, I decided to make a fruit sauce from scratch. I sliced up some left over pineapple, and put it in a skillet with sugar, water, and a dab of water. I let it simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the pineapple was soft and the liquid had reduced.
The bread pudding came out of the over, and I poured the pineapple over top. Now for the crown!! I whipped three egg whites in my mixer until stiff peaks formed, then stirred in three tablespoons of super fine sugar. I used a spatula to spread the meringue on top of the bread pudding, and put it back into the oven at 325 degrees for 20-30. It came out IMPRESSIVE. I served it warm, contrary to the recipe’s suggestion.


This entire dish of the Queens of Puddings was eaten, and I was showered with compliments about my culinary abilities. My non-history-nerd friends sincerely enjoyed this meal. It gave me great hope for the upcoming dinner party in March. I was worried about Kellogg’s “health food” being unappealing to a larger audience; but I also imagined there must have been a reason it so sought after a century ago.

P.S.–due to a busy schedule this week, I’ve had to write these posts fairly late at night. It has occurred to me that they may be sheer nonsense; the ramblings of a woman in a heavy cream drenched delirium. Just bare with me for two more days.

Temporal Fusion Cuisine: Fiamma’s Gnocchi

I wanted to share with you an amazing food I recently consumed. I did a video with Josh Ozersky of The Feedbag at Fiamma restaurant here in New York.

Chef Fabio Trabocchi prepared a gnocchi recipe, exceptional in it’s preparation of the potatoes, which are placed in a dutch oven with hay, and left to smoke and smolder on a stove top. The result is a potato that is infused with the smokey flavor of a dish cooked over an open fire. The recipe also calls for the addition of a pinch of nutmeg, a flavour very common to 19th century cooking.

When I took a bite of the tender potato dumplings, the combination of the nutmeg and the smokiness instantly transported me back to my time at a living history museum, and the hearth-cooked meals we would prepare. This is a dish I would dub “Temporal Fusion Cuisine,” a phrase I coined to describe food which relies heavily on flavors or techniques from culinary history, and combines it with contemporary culinary culture. Although Trabocchi did infuse the hearth-cooked flavor intentionally, I don’t think he intended the strong references to 19th century American cookery that this dish contains. Additionally, it was incredibly delicious, and I encourage the home chef to give this one a whirl.

You can get the full recipe here, and watch Trabocchi prepare the dish in the video below.

The Feedbag Makes Gnocchi with Fabio Trabocchi from The Feedbag on Vimeo.

Eating like a Tenement Family: Day 2

Breakfast: Broth and Bread:

On the subject of broth, Juliet Corson has this to say:

“I wish to call your attention to the following important fact. The hardy and thrifty working classes of France, the country where the most rigid economy in regard to food is practiced, never use tea or coffee for breakfast, and seldom use milk. Their food and drink is BROTH.”

With this is mind, I pulled last night’s broth from the refrigerator, and poured it into a mug to be reheated in the microwave. It smelled like farts, and there was some sludgy stuff on the bottom I decided I couldn’t stomach, so I threw that out. I added a little water to thin the rest out.

I toasted a slice of bread as well, from a loaf of fresh-baked Italian bread that cost .99 cents. It works out to about .07 cents a slice.

All in all, the broth wasn’t bad. It tasted like a rich soup, which is not necessary what I want to eat first thing in the morning, but it made the hunger headache I’ve had since last night go away. I felt full, but not really satisfied. I give breakfast broth a B+, although I think it will grow on me.

Cost: .07 cents.

Lunch: Baked Beans

I decided it wasn’t cost effective to make baked beans from scratch, as it was very labor intensive and used many items that I don’t usually have in my pantry. So instead, I opened a can of Campbell’s Brown Sugar and Bacon Baked Beans, cost .59 cents. Done and done.

Cost: .59 cents

Supper: Macaroni with Cheese

“Boil half a pound of macaroni…put it into a pudding dish in layers with quarter of a pound of cheese, (cost four cents,) grated and mixed between the layers; season it with pepper and salt to taste; put a very little butter and some bread crumbs over it, and brown it in the oven. It will make just as hearty and strengthening a meal as meat, and will cost about twelve cents.”

Ms. Corson suggests boiling the macaroni with an onion in the water; I have also read other recipes in which you add Mace, a spice made from the shell of the nutmeg. Mace has got a real kick to it, and is often hard to find in modern grocery stores. I’ve decided to add 1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes to impart a similar flavor.

My roommates were home, so I made a full recipe following Ms. Corson’s directions. 8 oz of macaroni costs about .80 cents, and 1/4 lb of cheddar cheese costs about $1.50. I also used 1/8 stick butter (.15 cents) and a sprinkling of bread crumbs which I had in my pantry. The recipe makes about four adult-sized servings, at a cost of .61 cents each. With enough salt and pepper, it was tastey and fairly flavourful.

Cost: .61 cents

I also ate one apple (.33 cents) and half of a lemon (.12 cents)

Day 2 Total Cost: $1.72
Approximate Calories Consumed: 995

Cost to Date: $4.06-$4.60

Note that all prices are based on a New York grocery store; they will vary by location. Today was better, although for the most part I feel headachey and and somewhat nauseous. I couldn’t imagine doing 12-14 hours of heavy labor on this diet; but I supposed sometimes you just do what you gotta do.