Thomas Jefferson―who would be a youthful 271 years old today if he were still alive―has plenty of well-known achievements. But my favorite bit of historical trivia about the author of the Declaration of Independence is much more humble: Jefferson was partly responsible for importing the recipe for macaroni and cheese to the United States.
Before he became president, Jefferson spent about 4 years as ambassador to France. In addition to his diplomatic duties, Jefferson used the opportunity to study French food, wine, and agriculture. Jefferson specifically brought James Hemings, a slave, with him to learn French cooking. The two made an agreement that if Hemings would become an expert chef and then train another slave when the two returned to the United Stated, Jefferson would free him.
As you may have guessed by now, macaroni and cheese was one of the dishes Hemings learned to make. It was later served at a few Monticello and White House dinners, and from there trickled down to the masses to become the comfort food we all love today.
While no copies of the recipe Hemings used exist today, historians believe that the recipe in The Virginia Housewife by Jefferson's daughter, Mary Randolph, is probably close. As that recipe is extremely simplified―it's less than 50 words―I offer a more modern version below.
Being the incredible innovator that he was, I have to think Jefferson wouldn't mind.
Macaroni and Cheese
Pasta and Add-Ins
- 16 ounces penne or elbow pasta
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced.
- 5 slices of bacon, chopped
- 1 can artichoke hearts, drained (or similar amount of a vegetable of your choice)
- About 2 Tablespoons reserved bacon grease
- 1 Tablespoon butter
- ¼ cup flour
- 3 ½ cups milk
- About 8 sprigs of thyme, with the leaves pulled from the stems
- 1 teaspoon stoneground mustard
- 2 cups shredded Gouda cheese
- 2 cups shredded Fontina cheese
- 1 clove garlic, diced
- 3 Tablespoons of melted butter
- 2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
- 2 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Fill a large pot with water for boiling the pasta and begin to heat. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
As you're boiling the pasta, begin cooking the toppings and cheese sauce. In a large skillet with high sides, cook the bacon over medium heat until the fat is rendered out. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon. Add the sliced shallot to the same pan and cook until it begins to turn translucent. Remove the shallot and set aside with the bacon.
Now you're ready to begin the cheese sauce. Hopefully there will still be about 2 Tablespoons of bacon grease in your pan. To that, add 1 Tablespoon of butter, and heat until the butter melts. (If you don't have enough bacon grease left, add a little more butter.) Then, over low heat, add the flour and whisk like crazy. You don't want the flour to brown, but it should start to bubble.
Once the flour is bubbling, add the milk. Keep whisking for 5-6 more minutes until the sauce is thickened. Then bring the sauce up to a simmer and cook gently―still whisking away―for about 10 more minutes.
Remove the sauce from the heat. Whisk in the shredded cheese, thyme, mustard, and a pinch of salt to taste.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and pour it back into the pot you cooked it in. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta. Add in the bacon, shallot, and artichoke hearts, as well, and mix until well combined. Pour the mixture into a 9x13 inch baking dish.
Last, but not least, make the topping. In a small bowl, mix the garlic, melted butter, breadcrumbs, and cheese. Using a fork, mix until well incorporated. Sprinkle the topping onto the prepared pasta and sauce.
Bake the pasta in your pre-heated oven for about 15 minutes. You'll know it's ready when it smells amazing and the topping is starting to brown. Scoop a generous serving into a big bowl and wish Thomas Jefferson a happy birthday!