In the comment section of a recent article, Josh responded to my entirely reasonable assertion that I be put in charge of selecting teams for the college football playoffs by saying (I'm paraphrasing) "Shut up and make me a sandwich."
His exact words were "When are you going to cook something? You know, people eat in the off season." Which is fair. More importantly from my perspective is that it's a convenient excuse to write about tailgating with no obvious tailgatable event (other than the two-hundred and fortieth anniversary of the signing of a particular declaration) on the horizon and earn an unscheduled but always coveted RBR contributor's paycheck.
Besides, it's always a good idea to stay sharp and practiced on the basics of whatever you set your mind to, and though I wouldn't say that macaroni and cheese is a ubiquitous feature of the average tailgate I'd be shocked that anyone would be shocked by its appearance. At the least I'd call it a staple of the form.
Many comfort foods are simplified versions of more refined ancestors. A hot dog has roots in all manner of amazing sausages. Domino's has a passing familiarity with Neapolitan pizza. I guess Wonder Bread is a cousin of an artisanal baguette, although I'm also guessing distant enough that most states would let them marry. It'll surprise no one, but so too does our box of Kraft Mac n' Cheese have a pedigree. What should surprise you is how easy it is to recreate the ideal the box is meant to mimic.
There are a few recurring phrases familiar to modern readers that invalidate anything that is to come after. "I'm not racist, but..." "I'm all for free speech, but..." I bring this up because some of the information I was able to glean about the probably noble origins of this dish came from a Smithsonian.com article that begins "The exact origins of macaroni and cheese are unknown," and then carries on for some five hundred words about the origins of macaroni and cheese, so a grain of salt or two is warranted.
If you want the waters muddied more, they claim the earliest recorded recipe was from Elizabeth Raffald's 1769 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. Without seeing her actual recipe, the descriptions I've read suggest that the recipe I'm presenting is more or less the same as the one she published. But apparently there are recipes from the Neapolitan court from 1248-1309 in the book Libre de Coquina. Unfortunately there are no descriptions I can find and even if I could, my Latin is a bit rusty.
But let's bring this back to Alabama football (kinda). Kraft released their first boxed mac ‘n' cheese in 1937. They offered dinner for four for nineteen cents. Not bad for the Depression Era. Bear with me, but it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that Frank Thomas' 1937 9-1 (6-0 SEC) SEC Champion team was fueled in part by this amazing innovation.
So Kraft may possibly, if you squint really hard and look at it sideways with a whole lot of suspension of disbelief, be responsible for at least one SEC championship. If so, surely a non-boxed, labor intensive and five times more expensive (let's just pretend I adjusted for inflation) version of the same dish could move us that much closer to the bigger, national, prize. It's science.
Try this concoction, supposedly so good that after enjoying it in Italy, Thomas Jefferson sent for a special pasta making machine from Europe, got frustrated with domestic attempts, sent for pre-made pasta from Europe, and served it at a state dinner.
Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. Elbow Macaroni or similar tubed pasta
1 lb. Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated
2 tbsp Unsalted Butter
3 tbsp. All Purpose Flour with more on hand if needed
1 cup Whole Milk with more on hand in needed
Cayenne Pepper or Tabasco Sauce to taste
First, make a roux. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it's a mix of fat with roughly one and a half that amount of flour whisked together over medium heat. You'll hear the corndogs talk about making a proper roux as if it was it some esoteric secret passed down guardedly from alchemist to alchemist but really if you've got the two ingredients and an adequate heat source all it requires is a working wrist and a whisk.
Add the butter and flour and whisk over heat. It should come together pretty quickly. You want the roux to be a bit gritty, like there is sand mixed in with your butter. If it's smooth, add a pinch or two of flour and continue to whisk.
I should mention that it was at this point when I was cooking for this post that, per Alabama Power, a tree fell on some lines a few miles from my house. Thanks go out to my wife for holding the flashlight. Sorry about the odd shadows in the pictures from here on out.
When you have your grittiness up to snuff, start adding the milk a few glugs at a time, whisk until smoother, add milk whisk, etc. By the time you have get to the last of the milk in you should have a pretty smooth, nay, silky little sauce.
Congratulations! You've made Bechamel, one of the five "mother sauces" of French cooking. But don't get cocky. Keep whisking.
Add the cheese a pinch or two at a time, whisk until smooth, add more cheese, etc. When you finally have all the cheese blended in, congratulations to you once more. You've now made a Mornay Sauce, more or less. Purists might argue that it has to be Gruyere or Emmental to be a true Mornay but there's nothing wrong with cheddar.
Now you can add a little heat if you like. I usually use cayenne pepper because it's such a clean spice. This time I decided to try Tabasco Sauce instead. I'm using Tabasco Sauce from now forward, a tablespoon or so. It really hits all the right notes.
Salt to taste.
The finished sauce can sit, unheated, for about the amount of time it takes to cook the pasta. Drain the macaroni, pour it into a bowl, and pour the Mornay over the top and stir.
It goes with just about anything. It's mac ‘n' cheese, for goodness sake. But if I can make a few suggestions, try it with the Smothered Pork Chops from last years Georgia game,
or the Asian Ribs from 2014's season opener.
I suppose this could be a main course, but I don't consider it one. It's a side. But still, no matter how trivial, it's something you put effort into. If we've learned nothing from The Process it's that attention must be paid to details, no matter how small. Isn't that what the off-season is for?
(Wow! That last paragraph came out way more "The more you know." [link] than I was expecting, but I'm too lazy to fix it. And maybe, just maybe, you'll learn something if I leave it in.)