Editor’s note: Another result of my whiny August 12 “Jump the Shark” post was the suggestion from my book club friend, Cynthia, that I do a bit of comparative food writing. She emailed:
“You could do a piece on the difference between the American ‘cheese and noodles — mac and cheese’ and the Italian one — Fettuccini Alfredo … Or you could do ‘chicken pot pie’ vs. ‘chicken pie’ — showing the difference between the German one with dumpling-like noodles and the other an English dish in a pie shell.”
Her further explanation of these ideas was so well thought out that I wrote her a reply: “Me thinks you should guest-blog on one of these subjects!?!” This week’s post is the result of that exchange. Buona lettura!
Macaroni and Cheese: An Interesting History and Patriotic Past
by Cynthia Lollo, Guest Blogger
Thanks so much to Maria for inviting me to write a guest-post for her fabulous Mangia, Figlie blog. She is such a wonderfully creative writer, I am hoping that you will afford me the latitude of not having my own blog and that I may lack the articulate way in which she discusses the everyday things we take for granted. Cooking and eating may seem simple to harried people who pick up a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, but there is so much goodness lurking out there it seems a disappointment not to delve deeper into that wonderful mix of noodles, cream, butter, and cheese.
Just the other night I was watching the Food Network show, “Throw Down with Bobby Flay,” and it led me to a question about Italian fettuccine alfredo versus the American macaroni and cheese. Bobby’s competitor made a traditional baked macaroni and cheese, but Bobby put pancetta, cream, and herbs in his. He won the competition, but the judges had a hard time comparing the two because Bobby’s was a variation of the traditional recipe.
I would love to have a great recipe for macaroni and cheese. I can never get mine the way I like it. And I have to admit, other than a great burger, macaroni and cheese — coined “mac and cheese” — is one of the best comfort foods in America today. (Feel free to disagree with me at any point in this blog. Trust me, I won’t be offended, lol.)
There is a similarity between the modern Italian fettuccine alfredo and the American mac and cheese. They are both created with butter, cheese, milk or cream, and noodles. Pasta, it seems, has its origins in China. It is made from a type of flour that was first brought to Italy by Marco Polo. This is usually where the similarities stop.
- Fettuccine alfredo was originally created in Italy and is credited to Alfredo di Lelio. This restaurateur created this delicious dish from fettuccine al burro, in which butter was added both before and after fettuccine was put into the serving bowl. He created the first alfredo sauce in 1914 in his restaurant “Alfredo alla Scrofa,” located in Rome. When his pregnant wife had difficulty keeping food down, he created this dish of butter and cheese, doubling the amount of butter used, and she began eating again. Alfredo added this new dish to his restaurant’s menu and it became an instant success, catching even the eye of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They ate dinner at his restaurant when they visited Rome and fell in love with the dish.
- It should be noted, however, that the Italians use much less butter than the American equivalent.
- In the south of Italy, the dish is called fettuccine al bianco. There it is more typical to dress the pasta with oil rather than butter.
- In the fourteenth century, a casserole known by the name makerouns was recorded in an English book of recipes. It was made with fresh hand-cut noodles sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese. By the eighteenth century, this dish of pasta, butter, and cheese in its various forms became popular throughout Europe.
- The English brought the recipe for “macaroni pie,” a precursor to the modern-day macaroni and cheese, to America by the 1800s. It was considered a dish of macaroni baked with cream and cheese. This dish then found its way into various cookbooks, and so the American legend was born.
- Macaroni and cheese was first documented in U.S. history in 1802, when our third president, Thomas Jefferson, first served the dish in the White House.
- Kraft Foods was the first to create a packaged version of this pasta. “Kraft Dinner” was introduced to the United States and Canada in 1937, and only needs butter or margarine and milk added to the pasta and powdered cheese in the box.
My stepmom always likes to make macaroni and cheese when she has too much cheese in her cheese drawer and it is going to go bad. She sees that as a sign to make her yummy version of mac and cheese, and I should remember to load her cheese drawer up more often! But my Dad was actually the first person who let me cook in the kitchen. He was into gourmet cooking at the time and I learned to make various dishes that are simply delicious and easy to make.
I have a great recipe from my dad for fettuccine alfredo that I just love — not sure where he got it, so I hope that I am not stealing anyone’s ideas here. It is easy to remember as it is a 1-to-1-to-1 combination of 1 stick of butter to 1 cup grated parmesan cheese to 1 cup of heavy whipping cream. The recipe I have also includes a few veggies to make it seem healthier; it reads as follows:
1 lb. fettuccine noodles
1½ sticks butter, divided
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced
½ lb. zucchini, julienned
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
Cook fettuccine according to the al dente instructions on the box. Sauté the veggies in a
½ stick of butter until al dente and set aside. In another pan, melt whole stick of butter. Add cream and start stirring. Slowly add the grated cheese, a little at a time until melted. Put the veggies back into the pan with the sauce, stir until coated. Serve over noodles. Serves 4 people.
Voila! Fettuccini Alfredo!
You can also alter this recipe to make it even healthier. Use milk and Smart Balance spread instead of butter, and then bump the cheese up to 1½ cups if it won’t set up with just 1 cup of cheese.
This is also a great sauce recipe for other things like Lasagna with Alfredo Sauce, or as a dip for bread!
I am still on the lookout for a perfect baked mac and cheese recipe and will let you know when I find a great one!
(Click here to print Cynthia’s father’s Fettuccini Alfredo recipe. Then click here to view and print Maria’s mom’s baked Macaroni and Cheese recipe, as shared with Cynthia. Comparisons are welcomed below.)