Macaroni and cheese is a hallmark of American comfort food. The recipe’s earliest known inscription dates back to 1769. Legend has it that Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s great expansionist, Enlightenment thought-leader and secret slave-owner, was a macaroni-phile. As the U.S. Minister to France in 1786, he procured both trade agreements and noodle recipes, as well as a pasta machine. Apparently, he even served mac & cheese at his Presidential Inaugural Dinner.
Macaroni’s popularity really surged in the early 20th century thanks to James Lewis Kraft. In 1937 Kraft introduced boxed macaroni and cheese contained special emulsifying salts to stabilize the cheese, thus leading to a longer shelf life. This was radically successful during the Great Depression and World War II, when rationing of dairy products and entrees without meat became the norm. Since then, macaroni and cheese has populated gourmet magazines and the American consciousness. No longer simply a food for the masses, it has become gourmand-worthy dish, often served with luxurious additions such as truffles, lobster, pork belly, and Gruyere. Me? I prefer a classic mac and cheese, but expertly done.
For the best macaroni and cheese, you want to have a cheese sauce that has just the right viscosity, thicker than cream, but not clumpy or dry, and extremely cheesy. But some of the best cheeses just don’t melt properly. Sharp cheddars and aged Parmesan are pretty hopeless – when they melt, the milk solids and oils separate, creating a broken oily mess. As cheese ages, lactose (milk sugar) converts into lactic acid, reducing the cheese’s pH level. Too much acidity breaks down the calcium bridges hold link casein (milk curds, or milk protein) together, causing the curds and the oil to separate. An ideal, not too low pH range for melting cheese is 5.3 – 5.5, which thankfully includes Gruyere, Manchego, and Gouda.
Traditionally in mac and cheese, a béchamel sauce (made with butter, flour and milk) acts as the emulsifier, as the starch particles and additional milk proteins hold the cheese together. However, too much béchamel and you sacrifice the cheese flavor. Alternatively, companies like Kraft use salts like sodium phosphate and sodium citrate to bind to the calcium bridges and prevent them from falling apart. The great Modernist Cuisine book, which I will probably cite frequently, recommends 1/8 teaspoon of sodium citrate for every 6 servings of mac, for a smooth and unbroken sauce. Here’s how it turned out!