Patina, that Melrose Avenue institution, has made one with hand-rolled macaroni and mascarpone cheese. Ammo, a Hollywood spot where you’re likely to overhear conversations about personal trainers, does a version with four cheeses and wild mushrooms. During truffle season, Melisse in Santa Monica fills a tuile of melted Parmesan with pasta, Taleggio and truffles.
And when Mimosa, a French bistro on Beverly Boulevard, first put it on the menu, they called it gratine macaroni comme quand on etait petit.
In other words, macaroni and cheese “like when you were little.”
Mac and cheese--it might be the last thing you’d expect to find chefs lavishing with attention. But just look though the menus at some of the city’s most interesting restaurants and it’s clear that macaroni and cheese is the new-old thing of the moment. One chef after another is trying a personal riff on a dish that already has a long and storied past, putting real creative energy into it while maintaining its endearing kid-food qualities.
Of course, whenever ambitious chefs try to put their mark on something we love, some of us start to worry (here they go again). And some of these newfangled versions are rather alarming (thanks, but we’ll pass on the version with foie gras). But there are plenty that actually work.
Take the one at the House on Melrose Avenue--a dish made with such finesse that, to the chef’s shock, it is helping to make the restaurant’s reputation.
“It got on our menu kind of as a joke,” says Scooter Kanfer, the chef. “When we were about to open last year, we were all stressed out, and they asked me, ‘What do you really feel like eating?’ and I said, ‘Macaroni and cheese.’
“But it’s turned out to be one of my biggest sellers. I go through 30 pounds of cheese a week.”
If you’re one of the legions who’ve tasted it, that’s no surprise. Kanfer’s version--made with luscious goat’s milk Cheddar, extra-large pasta shells and a crisp layer of bread crumbs as delicate as a creme brulee crust--is absolutely transcendent.
Mark Peel, who sometimes serves macaroni and cheese at Campanile’s Monday-night family dinners, says a lot of the attraction is the fact that it’s a touchstone of American home cooking. “Nearly every kid grew up eating it,” he says. “I like it a lot, personally. You can use it as a blank slate, you can do a lot of things with it, though you have to have one foot in tradition.”
One of its secrets is versatility. Macaroni and cheese has to be close enough to what you grew up on to warm the heart, but beyond that there’s a recipe for every taste, from simple mac and Jack to versions spiked with bacon or chutney. It can be chewy with tender pasta or so loaded with cheese it’s more like a nacho plate. There’s room for Oprah Winfrey’s recipe (Munster, Jack, two kinds of Cheddar, Velveeta, two eggs) and Paul Prudhomme’s (low-fat Cheddar and cottage cheese).
Still, there are some defining principles for a great one.
“You have to use good cheese, and the sauce should just fill the spaces, it shouldn’t flow,” Peel says. “And it has to be baked. The best part is the crusty part at the top, which you don’t get with a Kraft Dinner.”
White sauce enriched with cheese is what makes it macaroni and cheese, but pasta gives it much of its character. Many restaurants, including Marina del Rey’s soul food favorite Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, use larger pastas than the traditional elbow macaroni, such as shells or rigatoni, precisely because they keep the sauce from having a soupy feel; the sauce clings better to the broad surfaces.
And though a lot of us have the particular mild Cheddar flavor of the Kraft Dinner in the back of our minds somewhere, there are other ways to go. “There are basically two schools,” says Nick Coe, the former proprietor of Nick’s in South Pasadena. “The French way mixes different cheeses. But if you’re only using mild Cheddar or American cheese, you have to add onions or something to give it some interest.”
Of course, these are just grown-ups’ tastes. A children’s Web site called Topher’s Castle (www.lava surfer.com) has a feature in which kids vote for their favorite macaroni and cheese. They clearly prefer bland, ultra-gooey sauce, and lots of it. It’s no accident that the Kraft macaroni and cheese home page (www.kraftfoods.com/the cheesiest/home.html) shows a smiley dinosaur surfing a yellow ocean of cheese sauce.
But then, mac and cheese is a dish that crosses all sorts of demographic lines. It’s so all-American that nobody thinks of it as Italian. But it is, or at least it started that way.
The first Italian pasta recipes showed up in the middle-1300s. They had their oddities--the earliest lasagna recipe used leavened dough; macaroni started out as a flat noodle rather than a hollow tube pasta--but they were all served with cheese.
From Italy, the idea eventually spread to France, but it actually reached England first. The ties of the English royal family were with Normandy, which had possessions in Italy in the 14th century, so Richard II’s cookbook, “The Forme of Cury” (1390s), had recipes for loseyns (lasagna) and makerouns (macaroni) when they were still unknown in Paris.
The makerouns were served with grated cheese and melted butter, so this was not really modern macaroni and cheese but something more like pasta Alfredo. And for nearly 500 years, it was how most pasta was eaten.
Not in Britain, though. After Richard II’s time, the English forgot about macaroni altogether. But in the middle 1700s, English gentlemen started taking the grand tour of the continent to complete their education, and some of them brought back a taste for foreign delicacies, including caviar and macaroni.
The most pretentious of these connoisseurs were actually nicknamed “macaronis.” They were what you might call too cool for school. One observer said they managed to talk without meaning, smile without pleasantry and ride without exercise.
Thomas Jefferson picked up a taste for macaroni in Paris too, and he went on to serve it at the White House. The version he liked, using a stick of butter and a quarter-pound of cheese for every two cups of dry pasta, became widely known in this country.
But he’d learned about pasta from the French, and French have always been notorious for overcooking it. (To be fair, the concept of al dente took awhile to develop, even in Italy. The most influential Italian cookbook of the late 1500s said to cook macaroni for two hours.) So well into the 20th century Americans habitually overcooked macaroni, and in fact all forms of pasta.
How badly did they overcook it? Many recipes said to boil macaroni for 45 minutes. Even more appalling, Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph published a recipe for making “mock macaroni” when you couldn’t find, or afford, the real thing: “Break some crackers in small pieces, soak them in milk until they are soft; then use them as a substitute for macaroni.” All this might explain why it never occurs to anybody who grew up in this country that macaroni and cheese should be al dente.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century, macaroni and cheese remained pretty much as Jefferson made it, except that people had started baking it as a casserole, so from the 1840s on, most cooks added white sauce to the cheese for stability and sprinkled the dish with bread crumbs for an au gratin topping. Some took to putting in mustard, Worcestershire sauce or cayenne, the usual flavorings of Welsh rabbit, another dish that featured melted cheese.
For a long time. macaroni remained an expensive import, so macaroni and cheese was a relatively fancy dish. But at the end of the century, the price came down and macaroni became an everyday food in this country. The stage was set for home-cook inventions such as the potato chip crust. At last, mothers had something nearly every kid would eat. And then in 1937, Kraft Cheese Co. fatefully introduced the Kraft Dinner, with which, they advertised, you could make mac and cheese in nine minutes.
Every version reflects the taste of its times. Welsh rabbit made its contribution to macaroni and cheese in the 19th century, and cheese nachos are making theirs today when people reach for salsa with their mac and cheese. Others top it with ketchup, by analogy with the cheeseburger. Deep-dish pizza will probably give rise to versions spiked with pepperoni, if it hasn’t already.
One thing’s certain: Macaroni and cheese will live through it all. It’s a survivor.