Macaroni and cheese was one of my favorite foods as a kid. Growing up, it never occurred to me that my favorite comfort food might have historic origins. However, macaroni and cheese dates back to at least the Middle Ages, and became popular in Europe and America during the 18th and 19th centuries. I decided to try Eliza Acton’s macaroni and cheese recipe from her 1845 cookbook Modern Cookery in all its Branches to see what historic macaroni and cheese would’ve tasted like.
Eliza Acton’s recipe is extremely wordy. Essentially, it boils down to this:
8 oz macaroni
10 oz cheese (any white melting cheese besides Parmesan; Eliza says Parmesan is lumpy and “had better be avoided”)
3/4 pint cream
2 oz butter
pinch of cayenne
pinch of mace
pinch of salt
Boil the macaroni until cooked, then drain. Meanwhile, heat the cream in a saucepan until nearly (but not actually) boiling, then dissolve the cheese and butter into it. Stir in the seasonings. Combine the sauce and macaroni in a dish and cover with a thick layer of breadcrumbs. Brown in an oven.
I followed these directions almost exactly, although I did use a tiny bit of Parmesan because I didn’t have quite enough white cheddar (sorry, Eliza Acton). I used small penne pasta instead of curved macaroni; the term “macaroni” could refer to several different types of pasta in the 19th century, and Eliza Acton indicates earlier in her book that she’s using straight pasta.
I may have been a little overenthusiastic with the browning part…
This turned out delicious, and honestly tasted just like modern macaroni and cheese (real mac and cheese that is, not Kraft). The mace and cayenne were pretty subtle, so it mostly tasted like cheese, cream, and slightly charred breadcrumbs (the charred part could be avoided by not forgetting to check the dish while it’s under the broiler). You could absolutely adjust this with more cayenne or mace to your preference, or add other spices like ground pepper too. Bonus: aside from all the work grating cheese, this is super easy to make and doesn’t take that long to cook.
175 year-old macaroni: still a great comfort food.
Acton, E. (1845). Modern cookery, in all its branches. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/moderncookeryin00actogoog/page/n454/mode/2up
Cumo, C. M. (2015). Macaroni and Cheese. In Foods that changed history: How foods shaped civilization from the ancient world to the present (pp. 203-207). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
McWilliams, M. (2012). Macaroni and Cheese. In The story behind the dish: Fifty classic American foods. Santa Barbara: Greenwood.