Comfort Cooking from the Family Archives: A Midcentury Recipe for Baked Macaroni & Cheese

The San Francisco Bay area may be most well known for its sourdough bread, Ghiradelli chocolate, and all things aquatic found at Fisherman’s Wharf, but in my family, we have another favorite to add to the list too. It’s an heirloom recipe that comes from the kitchen of my adventurous epicurean aunt, Patti, who lived thirty miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge in a foggy seaside utopia called Half Moon Bay.

Always known as an agricultural town, Half Moon Bay, was first settled by the Ohlone Indians and then by Mexican, Portuguese and Spanish transplants in the mid-1800s. Since its early days, this hamlet has been home to commercial tree farms, flower fields, nurseries, and vegetable farms that serve the local, regional and national communities.

There, in her light-filled kitchen decorated with antique blue and white dishware, Aunt Patti experimented with all sorts of wonderful recipes over the course of the latter half of the 20th century. Many meals were inspired by her backyard garden and all the things that she could grow in this cool California climate, but she was also interested in just making good food that prompted smiles and a fun dining experience. Hand-tossed pizza, homemade layer cakes, marshmallow frosting, from-scratch waffles, grilled hamburgers stuffed with all sorts of pizazz – those are just a few highlights of mealtimes at Aunt Patti’s table.

Happy New Year vintage kitcheners! Since the world is still struggling through the pandemic and a multitude of other crises, I thought it would be fun to start 2022 off with a fun food from the family archives that has universal comfort appeal. Today, we are making Aunt Patti’s baked macaroni and cheese recipe that was passed down from her mom, Dorothy sometime during the 1960s.

Aunt Patti was the best kind of gourmet cook – curious, generous and always willing to try new things. If you are a regular reader of the blog, you might remember her handwritten recipe for Citrus Chicken that was featured here in 2018.

Just like the popular comfort foods of bread and chocolate that are embedded in San Francisco’s culinary landscape, this recipe that has danced around Aunt Patti’s kitchen for more than six decades is a reliable crowd-pleaser that’s been known to bring enjoyment even on the lousiest of days. And it’s no wonder – this classic food has been a salve for bad days and good appetites for centuries.

The idea of macaroni and cheese – a pasta baked in a saucy bath of melted dairy proteins – has been recorded in cookbooks since the 1700s. Elizabeth Raffald was the first to print it in book format in 1769. She made hers on the stovetop using macaroni, cream, flour, and parmesan cheese.

Elizabeth Raffald, an 18th-century English domestic worker, cooking instructor and author was the first to bring macaroni and cheese to the printed page in 1769.

Even though the recipe’s origins lay in the cuisines of England, Italy and France, macaroni and cheese nowadays, surprisingly, is most often associated with American cooking. We have Thomas Jefferson to thank for that. In the early 1800s, he was so fascinated by this dish after first trying it abroad, that he recreated it at Monticello and proudly served it at dinner parties. That helped to propel its popularity and expand its reach to other areas of the country. He even went so far as to work out the mechanical properties required to make, cut and dry the pasta just like he had seen it done in Italy.

Fun facts of culinary history aside, once baked macaroni and cheese tantalized the American palate it became a mainstay on the menu of popularity forevermore.

From Aunt Patti with love – Macaroni and Cheese – an heirloom family favorite.

Aunt Patti passed away in the late 1990s, so we don’t have her as a hands-on cooking consultant anymore but thankfully, my family still has all of her handwritten recipes, which makes it feel like she hasn’t altogether left us. When her recipe for macaroni and cheese resurfaced via my cousin this past Christmas season, it was a wonderful reacquaintance with her cooking style, her spirit and her son. And it sparked many discussions. More on that below, but first I wanted to point out the beauty of the actual recipe itself.

I love several things about its physical appearance in particular. 1) That the recipe is written in my Aunt’s hand. 2) That it is splattered and stained with over sixty years of use. 3) That it has the no-frills title of Macaroni Cheese and contains a few humbling spelling errors. 4) That it references my grandmother, Dorothy, in the top-right corner.

Grandma Dorothy, who lived between the years 1914-2012, was a great cook in her own right, but she was shyer than my aunt when it came to talking about food and how she prepared it. Luckily, Aunt Patti was a great recorder and when she fell in love with a recipe she liked, she wrote it down and filed it away in her recipe box. Did Grandma Dorothy invent this recipe, using her thrifty Depression-era cooking skills and staples she had on hand? Did Aunt Patti tweak it a little bit in the 1960s to make it her own? We’ll never know. But the fact that it has been made again and again in the same California kitchen for the past 60 years is proof enough that’s it’s a good one to keep hold of.

There are a bevy of different ways to approach baked macaroni and cheese … from the basic (cheese, milk, butter, flour, pasta) to the fancy (gourmet cheeses, spicy aromatics, infused butter, thick cream, specialty pasta). Aunt Patti’s recipe falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t contain any pricey ingredients or hard-to-find flavors but it does combine two more unusual components not often associated with a cheesy casserole.

The inclusion of sour cream and cottage cheese gives this recipe a rich, tangy flavor and fluffy consistency. It’s cheesy without being greasy and filling without being dense. It reheats beautifully and freezes even better, so if you wanted to make a big batch, double the ingredients and you’ll have a comforting casserole (or two!) for many winter meals to come. And since this recipe is connected to both my aunt and my grandmother, I’m taking the liberty to retitle it to include my grandmother’s last name and my aunt’s maiden name so that they will both be credited. This way, from here on out, the recipe will act as a tribute to two 20th century women who inspired each other in the kitchen. In turn, I hope their recipe inspires you too.

Macaroni Cheese of the Ladies’ Race

Serves 6-8

7 oz (1 3/4 cup) elbow macaroni or ditalini pasta

2 cups small curd cottage cheese

1 cup sour cream

1 egg, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

dash pepper

8 oz (two cups) sharp cheddar cheese, grated

paprika (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Cook macaroni on the stovetop in boiling salted water for 12 minutes. While the macaroni is cooking, mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl.

Fold in cooked pasta. Spread mixture evenly in a casserole dish. Top with paprika or cracked black pepper or neither – whichever you prefer.

Bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until the top of the casserole begins to turn golden brown. Let it rest on a cooling rack for just a few minutes before serving.

Aunt Patti would have suggested pairing this casserole with a simple side salad of home-grown lettuces, but it’s really delightful just enjoyed on its own too. The sharpness of the sour cream in combination with the creaminess of the two cheeses offers a silky flavor profile that is a dynamic, satisfying meal unto itself.

Since this recipe festively made the rounds in the kitchens of almost every single one of my family members and then their friends and their family this Christmas, it has sparked quite a few discussions.

I’ve learned that macaroni and cheese means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I’ve learned that there are two camps – those who prefer a homemade recipe like this one and those who prefer a boxed stove-top kind. I’ve learned that some people like extra cheesy, extra creamy macaroni swimming in sauce, and I’ve learned that some people prefer a lighter more souffle-like texture. I’ve learned that some people like to add a bunch of flavor enticing extras like bacon, chives, jalapenos, buttermilk, herbs and even apples to the mix. And I’ve learned that some people are purists and prefer nothing more than the likes of the original four ingredients first prescribed by Elizabeth Raffald’s 18th-century recipe. Like, pizza and all the zillion different ways you can top it, I’ve learned that strong opinions swirl around the kitchen when it comes to this type of comfort food.

I’ve also learned things about my own preferences and how I like to approach food these days. I love that this recipe is connected to a particular place and a particular set of women. I love that an old piece of paper with its compilation of interesting ingredients still continues to connect family and now you, here on the blog, sixty years after it was written. And I love that this recipe acts as an impetus to storytelling for the cooks who came before us. That to me is the real comfort of this comfort food.

If you try this recipe, I encourage you to comment below with your thoughts on this whole matter of macaroni and the cheese it swims with. Both Aunt Patti and Grandma Dorothy would have been pleased as punch to hear your thoughts, just as I am now. Passions and opinions are most welcome here!

Cheers to favorite family recipes, to the kitchens that keep them, and to the conversations that continue to float around them. And cheers to 2022. I hope your kitchen greets you with joy every day of this brand new year.

Saturday in the Kitchen: Chive Pesto

 

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Ms. Jeannie’s chive plant reseeded itself from last year (good little plant!) and this summer has decided to go at growing with passion. When the stalks reached 2 feet, it was time for a hair cut.

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Not wanting to waste any bit of these little delicates Ms. Jeannie searched high and low for a recipe that would incorporate cupfuls of chives instead of just bits of sprinkles here and there.  And surprisingly, it was harder to find than you might think – until she stumbled upon the Garden for A House blog and Kevin’s unique spin on classic pesto. Instead of traditional basil as the main green, he used chives! Perfect!

Ms. Jeannie got to work grinding nuts…

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next came the garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and four big cups of freshly chopped chives…

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She whirled all that together in her little food chopper until it formed a nice consistency – chunky but spreadable. And voila! Dinner was on its way to being done.  You could use this pesto lots of different ways – Kevin recommended fish, toasty baguette slices or pasta.

Ms. Jeannie went the pasta route…

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and tossed it all together in the vintage bowl that she has for sale in her etsy shop. This bowl gets lots of attention but no one has claimed it for a treasure yet. Ms. Jeannie thought it might help if she incorporated some “action” shots and indeed those little yellow flowers do look pretty against all that bright green!

After tossing, she let the pasta/pesto mixture sit for about 20 minutes to cool down to room temperature and let the pasta soak up the sauce. Needless to say this was all in all an effortless dinner –  with just under 15 minutes from prep to finish.  And Ms. Jeannie accomplished two feats in one –  substantially cutting back the onion patch and making dinner. Oh the ease of the summer lifestyle.

Chive Pesto

(makes about 1.5 cups)

4 cups freshly chopped chives

2 oz. nuts (Ms. Jeannie used peanuts. Kevin used sliced almonds. But really you can use any kind you want)

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1 garlic clove

1/4 cup olive oil

Chop your nuts first in a food processor or blender and then add the rest of the ingredients and mix until combined. You may need to add more olive oil for a looser pesto, depending on the type of consistency you like or how you plan to serve it. And you may want to add salt or pepper at the end – although Ms. Jeannie added neither – the cheese made it savory enough and the garlic added quite a  bit of spicy flavor.

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A great BIG thank you to fellow blogger  Kevin for his ingenious recipe and for helping Ms. Jeannie not waste one little bit of her summer garden harvest. Stop by and read Kevin’s blog here.

And if that serving bowl caught your eye, you can find it here in Ms. Jeannie’s shop!

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The next herb to tackle is the oregano. If anybody has any great recipes for oregano enmasse please comment below! In the meantime, happy garden cooking!

 

 

 

Bathe, Chop, Simmer: The Art of Italian Cooking, 1948

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All summer long, the garden tomatoes have ripened one or two a day – making an easy pluck, enough for a sandwich or a salad or an ingredient for dinner.  Now as the end of the season comes to a close, the bushes have reached their relaxed state of exhaustion. They are leggy, bald in some spots from clipping and pruning and dry in others  from months beneath the hot Georgia sun.

For all that they lack in fine appearance,  a curious event has been occurring over the past week or so. Suddenly,  it seems, the last little stragglers have joined together for one last hearty attempt to grow, ripen and red in abundance.

Over the weekend, Ms. Jeannie pulled 18 ripe tomatoes from her vines, with about 15 more “in the hopper” so to say that will be ready in the next couple of days.  My goodness! Their efforts seem valiant! Armed with her big basket full of beauties and under the spell of a cool rainy Saturday,  it seemed to Ms. Jeannie like the perfect time to make a new recipe from an old cookbook. The recipe is  Salsa Semplice Di Pomodoro #1, otherwise known as Plain Tomato Sauce #1 from the Art of Italian Cooking  by Maria Lo Pinto, circa 1948.

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The Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Lo Pinto, 1948

The cookbook is great. Hardcover, spotted, penciled, appreciated – every time she opens the cover, Ms. Jeannie feels like she is communicating with a dozen different women before her.  Their notes, their stains, maybe some sweat and tears all marked there on the pages. The author, Maria, bound all these recipes together because her friends kept asking how she did that, and this and that and this, again and again.  Just like the cookbook endeavor of the women of  St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church, the recipes contained in the Art of Italian Cooking have been passed down in Maria’s family for generations. Tried and true Italian, at it’s best!

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This is a really simple recipe with just 7 ingredients, which include basil, another overzealous  grower in Ms. Jeannie’s garden!  The recipe called for canned tomatoes, so Ms. Jeannie actually added a little bit of extra work to the whole affair by using fresh, but really that just meant a little bit of extra time preparing the tomatoes in a hot water bath.  So you could make this recipe either way depending on the amount of time you have.

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The hot water bath is easy – you just boil a big soup pot full of water  and once it starts bubbling drop your tomatoes in the water and let them bob about for 4-5 minutes. You’ll see the skins start to wrinkle and burst.  When that happens, they are ready to come out.

While the tomatoes are bobbing about you can chop the onions and garlic.  When the the wrinkles appear, lift each tomato from the bath (Ms. Jeannie likes to use a slotted spoon so that the excess water drains) you can put the tomatoes in a strainer to let them cool off a bit. Once cool enough to touch, you just peel the loose skin from the tomato, cut off any blemishes or spots and then set the tomatoes aside in a bowl.

Next,  warm the olive oil in a saute pan, add the onions and garlic, saute for 5 minutes and then add a sprig of basil and the tomatoes and sort of mash the tomatoes up with a wooden spoon in the pan.

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Simmer the whole pot on low for 45 minutes, stirring often. Next add the sugar and salt and pepper. Simmer for another 15 minutes and then it is ready!

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This batch makes about 3 cups of sauce (maybe a little more or a little less depending on the size of your tomatoes). According to the recipe it is enough for 1 lb. of pasta.  The consistency is thick with big chunks of tomato and onion, which works well with either a small pasta (shell, bow-tie, ziti) or the traditional spaghetti or fettuccine.

At the last minute, Ms. Jeannie decided to add two tablespoons of tomato paste and a cup of water, so that she would have enough sauce for an Eggplant Parmesan recipe she is going to try in October.  After simmering for another 15 minutes, those two additions increased the yield to 4 cups of sauce.

The great thing about this recipe is that you can tweak it however you like – add olives or mushrooms, oregano or a dash of red wine. In the introduction of the book, Maria encourages any and all experimenting – as she states – all these recipes are simple foundations of Italian cuisine – you can build up from them according to your palette.

Right now, it is still too warm for a heavy baked Italian dish, so Ms. Jeannie is freezing her batch. It is always seems fun to pull out little reminders of the summer garden when you are well into another season.

The next harvest challenge that needs to be tackled is the basil. Ms. Jeannie has plans to dry some and make a batch of pesto but there will still be lots to use before it starts going to seed, so if you have any suggestions please comment below!

In the meantime, here’s the tomato sauce recipe in full…

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Salsa Semplice Di Pomodoro #1 (Plain Tomato Sauce #1)

1 large canned tomatoes (or 15-20 small to medium garden tomatoes)

4 tbs. olive oil

2 sliced onions

1/2 tsp. sugar

1 clove garlic

1 sprig basil

Salt & Pepper to taste

Fry sliced onion and garlic about 5 minutes in oil. Add basil. Strain tomatoes through sieve; add and simmer 45 minutes or until tomatoes are cooked to a thick sauce. Stir frequently; add sugar, salt and pepper, stir thoroughly. Simmer 15 minutes.

This sauce may be used on any type of macaroni or boiled rice. Sufficient for 1 pound.  Also used with pizza recipe.

Mangia, dear readers! If you are unfamiliar with that expression, it means eat, in Italian!