October 17, 2009
According to an apparently recent legend, Thomas Jefferson invented macaroni and cheese. Truth is that pasta and cheese was served long before Jefferson declared himself a fan of macaroni. And by the time of Jefferson, the word macaroni was used as is used the Italian word maccheroni: basically a synonym of dry pasta without an associated shape. In fact, depending on the Italian region, maccheroni may refer to smooth rigatoni, square-shaped spaghetti or even tagliatelle.
Although Jefferson did import to America the first pasta maker for his own macaroni and we do know that in 18th-century North America people enjoyed pasta and cheddar baked together, we don’t know which shape of pasta nor which recipe Jefferson liked. But what we do know is that Jefferson pretty much enjoyed his travels in Northern Italy, and that he admired the works of Palladio. In fact, Jefferson followed Palladio’s principles to design his house in Monticello. Andrea Palladio was one of the most important Italian architects. His works can be admired all around the province of Venice, but mostly in Vicenza. His vision of classic architecture pushed Renaissance architecture to a whole new level that even anticipated neoclassical style, which was popular by the beginning of the 19th century. When visiting Monticello you can see the result of Palladio’s influence on American neoclassical architecture, which became the official style of the new nation. Actually, Monticello reminds you a lot of La Rotonda, a fabulous villa in the outskirts of Vicenza designed by Palladio.
Well, all this being said here is my interpretation of this American staple.
½ lb whole wheat macaroni
2 cups milk
1½ cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (+½ cup to put on top)
½ cup fontina cheese, grated
2 Tbsp corn starch
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
½ tsp dry mustard
½ tsp nutmeg
While you cook your pasta, preheat the oven to 350F. In a separate saucepan, melt the butter. Add 1 Tbsp of olive oil. Whisk in the corn starch dissolving any lumps, and let it cook for a couple of minutes. Pour in the milk. Add some salt and pepper, the dry mustard and nutmeg. Let it simmer until it thickens a bit. Add the cheese and let it melt while you stir. When the pasta is al dente, drain it but reserve about half a cup of the cooking water. In a baking dish, mix the pasta, melted cheese sauce and reserved water. Pour about half a cup of grated cheese on top and bake for about 20 minutes or until a golden-brown crust forms.
Jefferson’s Italian pasta maker, the first in America as I mentioned, didn’t last long. Jefferson, being an ingenious man, made drawings to put together his very own machine. However, records say that after his Italian machine broke, he decided to import his macaroni… from France!
Both Monticello and La Rotonda are UNESCO world heritage sites. Monticello is the only house so recognized in the US.