Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 04: “Cheese, Gromit!”

Macaroni cheese (“macaroni and cheese”, in these climes; or just mac-and-cheese) was one of the great dishes of my childhood. I’m hardly unique in that, on either side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless: my mother’s version is not my version, and US iterations are different again, in more than name. So. Let’s talk about pasta and fermented cow-juice.

My mother’s macaroni cheese was simple and focused: boiled macaroni in a cheese sauce made with a flour roux, milk and grated cheddar. Once mixed, it went under the grill with a little more cheddar on the top to brown.

My mother’s macaroni cheese was my macaroni cheese, too, when I was young. I think at some point early on it may have occurred to me that one could put sliced tomato under the topping cheese, for added taste and different texture; but I certainly never went further than that. It never occurred to me that it was possible to go further, till I was staying with a friend’s family and discovered her mother’s version. Which had, ooh, peppers and mushrooms in the sauce, along with the macaroni! Revelation!

So then I was all about experimenting for a while, and combinations: I liked cauliflower cheese too, so why not mix them together and make cauliflower macaroni cheese? And a murrain on plain macaroni, we can get such good pastas these days; why not try orecchiette? Or I really like my food spicy, so why not pep the sauce up with a little cayenne? Or a lot of cayenne? Or, wait a minute, everything’s better with bacon; why not put bacon in it? Or on it? Or both…?

So, yup: changes were rung as a matter of course. I did experiment with other cheeses too, but I mostly came back to a good cheddar, because good cheddar just makes the best sauce. Only then I came to America, where people mostly seem to have grown up with macaroni and cheese from a box (NB, I impute nothing; I have not tasted it) and a good cheddar is hard to find. In fact, locally, a good cheddar is impossible to find. So my current default is made with blue cheese (“bleu” over here, I know not why; I mostly use gorgonzola), mushrooms and bacon.

Which is not to say that there is not good cheese in America; there is excellent cheese, made right here in California. Some friends took me on a cheese crawl a few months back, up into Sonoma. We ate oysters by the bay, with bread from a wood-fired oven, and drank raw milk that took me way back to my childhood and a Jersey cow called Nancy; but mostly we ate cheese, at eight or nine different creameries all across the county. It was a fabulous day. But nothing of that gets back to my local grocery stores, where everything is vacuum-packed and mass-produced and we will not even discuss the abomination called “American cheese”. Which even here may not legally be sold as cheese.

In another way, almost all the cheese I find here is American cheese. I’d been blithely assuming that legal names-of-origin like Parmigiano and Stilton were protected worldwide, but not so: only in Europe. Here, the Parmesan and the Brie come from Wisconsin, mostly. It’s not the same. Partly because of pasteurisation, partly differences in production and technique, partly of course environmental factors. One can track down imported cheeses, but that feels like cheating. I’d rather find good local substitutes, but my tastes are ineluctably English, trained from childhood to certain types. I want a blue cheese that will crumble under the knife, like a real stiff Stilton; a soft moulded cheese that will run like a ripe Brie; and above all, a cheddar sharp enough to make my gums bleed. So that, inter alia, I can make m’wife a proper macaroni cheese…

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Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 04: “Cheese, Gromit!” — 7 Comments

  1. I can’t do the blue cheeses (can’t do any cheese right now, alas–mold and I are not friends.) All I can taste is the mold.

    But a nice Black Diamond white cheddar, or a sharp Vermont or upper New York state cheddar? Now, that’s a lovely mac & cheese. Would love to try it with Jovial brown rice shells.

    I have no memories of “the box” being any good, although Stouffer’s frozen mac & cheese was a family favorite at one point. There’s a natural box version you can get with white cheddar that is a tasty substitute, but…once you have had it with real cheese? Going back just…hurts….

  2. Next time you’re up in our general vicinity, Chaz, I will take you to Canyon Market, our local too-good-for-the-day-trade market. They have a nice cheese section, and I am fairly certain some of it wasn’t born in the U.S.A.

    Me, when I make mac and cheese these days it’s fairly simple four-cheese sauce, whatever non-spaghetti-form pasta I have to hand, a minced jalapeno or two, and garlic. My family are simple souls. When I add tomato they complain (but if there’re tomatoes on the side they are happy. Go figure). And still, it is yummy. Oh, and Canyon Market’s Black Diamond cheese spread is a lovely thing.

  3. Try Tillamook Extra Sharp cheddar. You’ll have to grate it yourself, but why not?

    One discovery I made long ago after a party, when I had a platter full of mixed cheese cubes to use up, was that the usual party platter mix of cheeses made an excellent mac’n’cheese, and being in small cubes already, didn’t need to be grated.

    And note – the recipes I see call for the roux to be made in two separate pans, over low heat, whisking constantly. My mom used a double boiler which worked very well. If you want a heat-tolerant double boiler, go to the hardware store and get the spotted enameled cookware version, also known as two saucepans with but a single lid.

    Pat, whose next casserole was going to be mac’n’cheese anyway.

  4. The frozen Mac and Cheese from Safeway with a little broccoli steamed with sweet onion and mushrooms is near heaven. Sometimes I slice in cooked Italian sausage–I use the mild turkey sausage because of spice and cholesterol problems. May jalapenos never cross my threshold again.

    I use the box as a base for tuna casserole.

  5. I loathed macaroni and cheese as a child. In fact I loathed macaroni and anything as a child, and I still do. Macaroni to my taste-texture buds just isn’t pasta, which I adore.

    Considering all the downsides to where we live, the up side is that all my pastas, cheeses, etc. are from nations of origin. Well, not the pasta and pesto really. But the Italian family who immigrated here in the later decades of the 19th century are still making the pasta and pesto, proscuitto bread, etc. in their New Jersey place, as well as their own mozarella, smoked and otherwise, with milk from their own herds. Olives and olive oil and other cheeses, the glorious forms of ham and sausage — and even certain pastas — all come into their retail shop from their family in Italy. And it’s not just hype. There have been Italian families operating this way here for generations. But it’s unsure how much longer this can continue as the global plutocracy’s pressure on small families and businesses and landholding continue to push them down and out — no matter how successful they are.

    Love, C.

  6. The thing to do, as an expat, is to create an unholy amalgam of the past and the present. Use local ingredients in the classic recipes of your childhood, and create something new and utterly yum. Example: the Chinese who moved to Hawaii adopted poi, dipping duck pieces into it and frying. I assure you you could eat it all day, except that your heart would seize up solid as your arteries congealed. And some day we will discuss that great Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, Chinese sticky rice…

  7. I like Fiscalini cheese, from Modesto, CA. Their cheeses are farmstead cheeses, meaning they own, care for and milk the cows to make their cheeses. Here is the web site: http://fiscalinicheese.com/
    And this is from the home page “Mariano’s passion is to make clothbound cheddar in the rich tradition of the United Kingdom. Our Bandage Wrapped Cheddar won Best Extra Mature Traditional Cheddar in the World at the 2007 World Cheese Awards in London. It would seem that Mariano’s passion has paid off”. Modesto is about 90 miles from Sunnyvale, definitely meets my definition of eat local.