Good Eats

A Rich Legacy

By Jed PortmanApril 13, 2013

NOTE: This blog post was originally published April 13, 2013.

Today, on what would be Thomas Jefferson’s 270th birthday, you are sure to see our third president remembered as the voracious intellectual who drafted the Declaration of Independence and founded the University of Virginia. In the world of Southern food, however, Jefferson boasts another, lesser-known accomplishment: He played a major role in bringing macaroni and cheese to the American dinner table.

Macaroni and cheese is now one of the South's favorite dishes. Pictured: the mac and cheese at Poole's Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo: Peter Yang

In 1789, Jefferson returned from a stint as ambassador to France with a handwritten recipe for "Nouilly a maccaroni." An Italian machine for making macaroni noodles followed. A decade later, as president, Jefferson would serve White House diners a butter-laden macaroni casserole that one flustered guest, who had never tasted anything like it before, described as "very strong, and not agreeable."

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

1824’s The Virginia Housewife, one of the most influential cookbooks of the nineteenth century, included the first recipe for macaroni and cheese to appear in print in the United States. The book’s author? Mary Randolph, a friend and relative of Jefferson’s. Like the former president, Randolph kept her macaroni and cheese simple. Her sentence-long recipe called only for noodles, cheese, butter, and a sprinkling of salt.

Almost two centuries later, macaroni and cheese is one of the cornerstones of Southern cuisine. And while it’s hard to beat the basic formula that Jefferson and Randolph pioneered, we are partial to the gussied-up noodles on the menu at The Inn at Little Washington, a resort neatly situated between Jefferson’s one-time workplace in Washington and home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Aged Gouda cheese and Virginia country ham give this macaroni and cheese a luxurious depth of flavor that would have been welcome on Jefferson’s own table.

Macaroni and cheese with Virginia country ham, from The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia
Serves 4-6

Every bit as comforting and soul-satisfying as mother’s, this delicate version is actually easier to prepare. All of the preparation can be done in advance and finished just before serving. We use a well-aged Dutch Gouda cheese, which has the consistency of Parmesan.

¾ cup macaroni or your favorite tubular pasta
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tbsp. minced shallots
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup freshly grated aged Gouda cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 slices Virginia country ham, finely julienned
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
White truffle (optional)
Crispy fried onions

In a large pot, bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni, and cook until the pasta is half done (the interior will be slightly raw). Drain the pasta, place it in a small bowl, and toss it with the olive oil to keep the macaroni from sticking together. Allow the pasta to cool.

In a 4-quart saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and shallots and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, being careful not to brown them. Add the cream, bring to a rapid boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until the cream has reduced by one-quarter and it coats the back of a spoon.

Whisk in the grated cheeses and cook for a minute or so until the cheese is melted and the mixture is smooth. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

When ready to serve, return the cheese sauce to the pan over low heat and add the cooked macaroni. Simmer for a minute or two to make sure that the pasta is warmed through.

When ready to serve, garnish each portion with the julienned ham, chopped chives, and crispy fried onions. If you like, you can shave white truffle onto the macaroni at the table.

Crispy fried onions
Makes about 2 cups

1 Spanish onion, sliced into paper-thin rings
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 quarts vegetable or peanut oil (for deep-frying)
Salt to taste

In a deep fryer or heavy pot, heat the oil to 350 degrees. Dredge the onion rings in flour quickly, and shake off the excess flour. Add the onion rings to the hot oil, turning them frequently with a skimmer or slotted spoon until they just turn golden brown, about 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, remove them from the oil and drain them on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.