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Macaroni and Cheese, aka mac ‘n’ cheese, is a casserole of pasta and melted cheese, customizable in countless ways.
Given its widespread popularity at every level of contemporary dining, it is hard to believe that macaroni and cheese once had upper class airs. Thomas Jefferson served a baked version at Monticello and at the White House. Mid-19th century recipes say to present it within a pâte feuilletée, and some insist that heavy cream be part of it.
Standard versions call for cheddar cheese. But you’ll also find gouda, brie, pimento cheese, Monterrey Jack, and eggy cheese sauces similar to what dresses spaghetti carbonara.
Noodle shapes vary, too. Shells, fusilli, or rotini may replace the macaroni.
Most commonly, cooks bake it in the oven. This results in a casserole that may have a chewy top and crusty edges. Cafeteria servers sometimes offer a choice of creamy middle or crisp edge.
Should you top the casserole with crumbs or crackers? Some versions sport a crown of crushed crackers (Ritz, usually), bread crumbs, or crumbled corn flakes. Cooks use this topping not only for its taste and texture, but as a way to make sure the noodles just below don’t get dry or leathery.
Oven-baked versions can be dense enough to be cut into squares for serving. They also can be looser. If the dish comes from a stovetop pot, it can be nearly soupy.
Many home cooks start with one of the several packaged mixes, such as Kraft Dinner, then improve it by adding cut-up hot dogs, bacon, ground beef, tuna, chili (for chili mac), or vegetables. Aspiring chefs fancy it up by including lobster or lamb, smoke-cooked meats, or herbs.
Unless the chef amends the basic formula with significant protein, macaroni and cheese usually is a side dish. Meat-and-3 restaurants throughout the South list it as one of the available companions. Virtually every lunch buffet features a pan of it. BBQ parlors that offer side dishes usually include it as an option.