“One thing we would never change is macaroni and cheese,” she assures us. “Our customers demand it at every meal.” Exemplary macaroni and cheese it is: buttery noodles in a cream-smooth béchamel hefted by the ladleful from a serving pan, each portion containing a few dark orange patches of chewy Cheddar from the top of the batch.
Jane and Michael Stern, Gourmet magazine, December 1995, reviewing Beadle’s Cafeteria, including its recipe for macaroni—a classic, our favourite go-to comfort food for the last 25 years.
Macaroni. The very word, macaroni, like a mantra, calms us. Thoughts of other food vanish, overcome by desire for this simple dish. Now, right now!
Filling a nostalgic longing for the food of our childhood is the reason, some say, that explains the universal, visceral appeal of macaroni. Not for me. Oh yes, my siblings and I loved—or rather, would love to have had, macaroni. Our plates, instead, were filled with vegetables from mom’s garden, meat from the chicken, pigs and cattle we raised and dessert from wild berries, canned fruit, in-house baking and home-churned ice cream. Macaroni? Why, mom would chide us, why would we want store-bought (i.e. expensive), non-nutritious (compared to what we grew ourselves), tasteless (to our parents) macaroni?
Eating macaroni “Eight Days a Week” would have suited me. The Beatles recorded that song the year I premiered my recipe for macaroni, the last week in December when mom was in hospital after giving birth to our new sister, Joan. I was fifteen years old but my accumulated time over the stove could have been measured in hours. As the oldest, I was in charge of the kitchen—Macaroni for supper kids! Elbow macaroni mixed with the contents of a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup (or was it a jar of mom’s home-canned tomatoes?), ground beef (to ensure our meat-loving dad would eat it…how did I convince his Scottish self to buy/let me buy the other ingredients?) and cheese (was it Velveeta slices or greasy orange cheddar from our one-store town?)
While attending university and early in our marriage, I graduated (or subsumed) from my initial abomination to Kraft Dinner. Boxes of bite-sized tubular macaroni and a foil pack of processed-cheese powder—the addictive tang of sweet and sour craving for dominance over our taste buds. Expecting for years that mom was right, I recently learned she was: Kraft Dinner’s tartrazine-orange powder (manufactured taste from a lab in Illinois) is mostly whey—scientists estimate it contains only 29% cheese. And found high concentrations ofphthalates, industrial chemicals that can damage our livers, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems in thirty different brands of boxed mac and cheese, not just KD.
Kraft Dinner was introduced in the US in 1937 during the Great Depression. For nineteen cents, a single box could serve four people, though who among us isn’t guilty of serving it for one at least once in our lives? The company sold nine million boxes of KD in its debut year.
It came to Canada in 1939 where, unofficially, it’s been called our national dish and no wonder, because every week, I repeat every week, Canadians buy 1.7 million of the 7 million boxes of Kraft Dinner sold around the world. Annually we consume 3.2 boxes of the stuff per capita, 55% more than our US neighbours.
As you might expect, in the first six months of 2020 a world hurt by the pandemic ate a lot of pasta, 25% more compared with 2019. Globally, 14.5 million tons of pasta were produced in 2019 with residents of Italy leading world consumption at 23.1 kilos per person, almost three times as much as Canadians. How much will we consume this year waiting for a vaccine?
While we associate pasta with Italy, credit belongs to the Arabs for introducing a dried noodle-like product to Sicily in the 8th Century. Sicily specializes in growing durum wheat, which is harder, higher in protein and yields a semolina of uniform size with minimum starchy particles. By law, Italian dried pasta can only be made from durum wheat.The first reference to pasta was in 1154 about an export factory in Sicily. The earliest written record was discovered in 1279 in a will which someone bequeathed a “bariscella plena da macaroni” basket full of macaroni! (Come to think of it, I’d like my version of Beadle’s Macaroni to be served at my wake.) Around 1800, the first mechanical devices to produce pasta appeared, simplifying the extrusion process that creates protein shields around starch molecules that give pasta its elastic structure.
To try all its different shapes, you would have to twirl your fork around pasta once a week for almost a dozen years. My favourite is garganelli (gahr-gah-NELL-lee). Don’t be put off that it sounds like gargle. From the Latin gargala, meaning trachea, garganelli is shaped like a tubular device used to examine the throat and similar size to penne but with horizontal rather than vertical ridges, a shape ideal for absorbing cheddary béchamel sauce. More nutritious than most pasta, garganelli contains durum wheat flour and egg.
Outside Italy pasta took off in popularity at the turn of the 20th Century when many Italians immigrated to North America. I don’t know their ethnicity but in 1956 Earl Beadle and his wife opened their eponymous cafeteria that quickly earned and hung onto its reputation as Pasadena’s best diner. A saddened customer named Chuck wrote this when Beadle’s closed in 2006:
I miss the creamy, cheesy, cheddary mac-n-cheese that no other comes close to. And then there was the live organ music that was played by Jimmy Rhodes in the ’70’s and if he wasn’t there, his 8 track tapes would be playing.
The Beadle’s list of ingredients and preparation technique for macaroni are almost identical to the first recorded recipe for the dish in Elizabeth Raffald’s book, The Experienced English Housekeeper in 1770. (For centuries Raffald was the recipe name for macaroni and cheese. Doesn’t have the same melody and emotional bond as macaroni does it?) Into cooked macaroni, Elizabeth stirred a béchamel sauce that was firmed and flavoured with grated cheddar cheese, sprinkled with a cloud of Parmesan on top and baked the ensemble until it was bubbly and golden. (A Canadian recipe in Modern Practical Cookery seventy-five years later, smacked of pretention with its puff-pastry lining, rich sauce of cream, egg yolks, mace, and mustard, and topping of grated Parmesan or Cheshire cheese. Not for me either are macaroni recipes slathered with buttered breadcrumbs, greened with peas, punched up with garlic, onions or chili pepper or over-proteined with chicken, ground beef or pancetta: discomfort food.)
Back to the perfection of Beadle’s macaroni. I make only three simple alterations. I use garganelli pasta. I add lightly roasted Sungold tomatoes. And I prefer black pepper to their suggestion of white. Take my advice and use the best sharp cheddar you can afford, which will be white not orange: my notes say Tuxford & Tebbutt Mature Irish Cheddar is our fave over the last twenty-five years; the company has been making this cheese since 1780. If you’re into winners, Pitchfork Cheddar from Trethowan’s Dairy was named the best British cheese in 2019 and took fourth place overall in the World Cheese Awards. From coast to coast, Canada produces many sharp cheddars that will have you scraping the crusty bits from the bottom of the macaroni dish.
Yes, since you’re likely wondering, if there’s any macaroni left over, this recipe is delicious spooned cold from the fridge and washed down with a glass of milk before bed.
Savoury dreams everyone.
- ½ pound (250 grams) macaroni, penne or my preference—garganelli pasta
- 3 cups milk, heated but not boiled
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ cup flour
- ¾ tsp salt
- ¾ tsp freshly ground pepper
- 12 ounces (340 grams, equivalent to ~3 cups) sharp cheddar, the best you can afford, grated coarsely
- 1½ cups vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, halved and, if you have time, lightly roasted
- Cook the pasta, drain and set aside.
- While the pasta is cooking preheat your oven to 350° F and prepare the sauce. Melt butter over moderate heat in a heavy saucepan. Add flour and whisk for about 3 minutes to make a roux but don’t let it brown. Add the hot milk in a steady stream, whisking until it thickens but don’t let it boil. Reduce heat to low, add two-thirds of the cheddar to the sauce and stir until melted. Add salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir in the pasta and cherry tomatoes.
- Grease a shallow 3-quart baking dish and transfer the pasta into it. Top with the remaining cheddar. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden brown.
Remember the song “If I had a million dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies and its reference to Kraft Dinner? Food and Wine in March this year highlighted Canada’s obsession with KD.
Click here for the link to the International Pasta Organization.
Here’s the Stern’s review of Beadle’s, originally published in Gourmet magazine and reprinted in Roadfood.
Statista has stats on Canadian consumption of pasta.
The Walrus has a great article on Kraft Dinner called “Manufacturing Taste.”