Mac and cheese: A macrocosm of variations

February 28, 2012

Start a pot of pasta water on the stove, and it boils down to this: You can make macaroni and cheese 365 days a year and never do it the same way twice.

With a nearly infinite array of potential components, this most American of comfort foods also can be Mexican, Indian, Italian, Greek, French or any cuisine in which cheese is a given. Even a modestly stocked pantry allows you to grab and get going. Flour and butter become a roux, the roux becomes a bechamel, the bechamel becomes a cheese sauce, and dinner is not far away.

There’s really no reason not to make it yourself, although these days you can also get your mac-and-cheese fix in a slew of restaurants, even at the high end. The Inn at Little Washington prepares it with Virginia country ham and shaved truffle for a second course; at Vidalia downtown, it’s available with smoked ham as a side.

And soon, Washington could join the growing list of areas that are home to a recent phenomenon: the mac-and-cheese restaurant. Robert Dunn, a Connecticut entrepreneur, opened Mac­daddy’s Macaroni and Cheese Bar in affluent Monroe, Conn., 70 miles outside Manhattan, last July and says sales have been “just unbelievable. . . . I go through a thousand pounds of macaroni a week.” He just sold a franchise for 10 locations in Texas, plans three more in Connecticut, says he is “close to making a deal” for five stores in California and adds: “I’m talking to somebody in D.C. I just don’t want to mention his name.” Under discussion: “at least three to five” stores here. Macdaddy’s sells about 25 different macs, far eclipsing the ­options at CapMac, a D.C. area food truck.

Dunn, 42, is a self-taught cook who says he used his previous experience at a failed fine-dining restaurant he owned in developing recipes for the mac-and-cheese place, where there are more than 20 permutations on the menu. “It’s so easy to make this stuff taste great,” he says. One recipe, for example, is basically a pasta version of a mushroom risotto he sold at his old restaurant.

Home cooks can take that same approach, turning favorite flavor combinations into cheesy casseroles. Chicken, celery, blue cheese and wing sauce make Buffalo chicken mac and cheese. Corned beef, sauerkraut and rye bread crumbs make Reuben mac and cheese. Caramelized onions and Gruyere evoke French onion soup. And so on. It’s a far cry from the days when Mom stirred hot dog slices or canned tuna into the mix.

It’s also a far cry from what mac-and-cheeseheads refer to as “the blue box.” Kraft introduced its boxed mac and cheese in 1937, near the end of the Great Depression, and it remains the pre­eminent store-bought brand ­today, despite inroads made by Annie’s Homegrown and other competitors. (On Facebook: 727,469 “Likes” for Kraft, 219,316 for Annie’s.) But even Kraft has evolved with the times, and its products now include such ­flavors as Sharp Cheddar and Bacon, Cheesy Alfredo and ­Extreme Cheese Explosion.

By the time Kraft entered the game, macaroni and cheese had lost its luster as the high-society dish it once was. Thomas Jefferson encountered it in Europe, where it was a fashionable food, and is said to have brought it back to America. Just what he brought back is a matter of debate. Philadelphia-based chef Walter Staib, who hosts a public television show on America’s culinary beginnings, theorizes that the pasta was “macaroni, maybe some kind of penne or pappardelle,” and that the cheese was Gruyere.

“Jose Andres will disagree with that,” he says with a smile.

Sure enough, at Andres’s America Eats Tavern in Penn Quarter, the celebrity chef’s journey into U.S. culinary history, vermicelli is broiled with butter and Parmesan cheese in a dish he has called “the oldest way of making cheese with pasta ever recorded in America.”

The old ways are fine, but these days we have the culinary resources to make mac and cheese in endless creative combinations: with all of the pastas, cheeses, meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables and other ingredients a supermarket (or farmers market) has to offer.

In the accompanying graphic, we’ve laid out ways to concoct your own — with a basic recipe, a few variations and a list of our favorite mac-and-cheese components — whether it’s every day of the year or just dinner tonight.

RECIPES

Recipe: Classic Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe:Buffalo Chicken Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe: Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe: Indian Macaroni and Cheese

Recipe: Shrimp and Pesto Macaroni and Cheese

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