Italian Macaroni and Cheese

First let’s talk about Kraft Mac and Cheese for a moment. You know the stuff I’m talking about – comes in a box with a package of powdered cheese. In 1916, Kraft was awarded a patent on their powdered cheese. While the company did not create powdered cheese, it did come up with a new way of processing the powdery substance. By 1937 Kraft had perfected its Mac and Cheese Dinner. The timing was perfect. World War II was looming just over the horizon, and the impact of a world war would create a demand for Kraft Mac and Cheese. With war came the rationing of milk and dairy products, the creation of massive armies and the demands of governments for foods that did not require refrigeration in order to feed their soldiers in the trenches. War also changed the structure of families and the role of women. No longer were women homemakers. Factories would have sat idle if not for women who filled the void while men were off fighting a war. Kraft Mac and Cheese to the rescue on all these various fronts with its powdered cheese supper.  The Kraft Mac and Cheese Dinner was cheap, had a long shelf-life and was a convenient time-saver for women who found themselves in duel roles – both workers and care-givers.

With the growing popularity of convenient, easy to make meals and TV dinners craze, many families, especially in the forties and fifties, grew up eating Kraft Mac and Cheese. Many, but not all families were familiar with Mac and Cheese Dinners. Our family was one of those exception – we didn’t eat Mac and Cheese – not from a box, not from scratch. I haven’t a clue why we didn’t have Mac and Cheese in some form. As a Pre-Vatican II family, you would think Mac and Cheese would have been a natural choice for those meatless Fridays. It wasn’t. Fish sticks, egg salad sandwiches and tuna fish were big in our house. (To this day, I am not a fan of Fish Sticks although I do enjoy tuna fish and eggs salad sandwiches. I think the problem with fish sticks is that I’ve never been able to figure out what part of the fish a stick comes from. I don’t care much for foods that I don’t understand).

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, living on my own, that I first tasted Mac and Cheese – the stuff in the box. I liked it. The Mac and Cheese was easy to make, and didn’t cost very much. If memory serves me correctly, it was about twenty-five cents a box. Add a little milk, a little butter and there you go – a meal for less than fifty cents total that fed the whole family. Add some peas, a can of tuna fish and you had a casserole. While I cannot say I loved the stuff, it was cheap and easy. Two very important things when you are venturing out on your own for the first time.

I will admit, first time I made Mac and Cheese from scratch, I didn’t care for it very much, having grown accustom to the stuff in a box over the years. Real Mac and Cheese, made with REAL cheese has a different texture, and a deeper flavor. It also requires attention to detail, more than one-pot and a willingness to invest a few more minutes of your time. Now we almost never eat the stuff in a box. Oh, you’ll still find a box or two of the powdered cheese variety in the pantry. It’s something Kiddo can whip up when Hubby and I have other plans. Still convenient and relatively cheap.

When dining on Mac and Cheese as a family, I’d much rather have the real deal. Italian Macaroni and Cheese is so rich and satisfying. It’s great on its own, served with a simple salad of leafy greens and ripe tomatoes. While the real-deal takes a little longer to prepare, it’s so much better.

Add tuna for a casserole, or chopped chicken or Italian Sausage. The sky is the limit.

Italian Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb mini Pennette pasta
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups Milk, divided
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 Tablespoon Minced Garlic
8 oz of Italian blend shredded cheese
Sea Salt to Taste
Pepper to Taste
1/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes.

While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a deep sauce pan over medium heat. Once butter is melted and foamy, sprinkle with flour. Whisk mixture over medium heat to create a light roux, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and Italian seasoning. Whisk to incorporate into roux.

Slowly add about 1 cup of milk, whisking constantly to keep mixture smooth. Add an additional 1 cup of milk, whisk to blend. Lower heat to simmer and let mixture thicken.

When pasta has cooked, drain well and set aside until ready to add to sauce.

Add Italian cheese to sauce. Stir well until cheese has melted and sauce is thick. Remove from heat.

Add pasta to sauce pan. Fold pasta into cheese until well blended. Pasta/cheese mixture will be very “stringy”. Add remaining 1/2 cup of milk SLOWLY to create a creamy mixture of cheese and pasta.

Plate Italian Macaroni and Cheese into individual bowls. Top with remaining Parmesan Cheese and enjoy!

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