Thomas Jefferson’s Mac and Cheese

Macaroni and Cheese. The name, in much of the world, conjures up a familiar image of elbow macaroni in a yellow, cheddar-y sauce. According to Wikipedia, the English-speaking world’s love of the gooey stuff owes much to President Jefferson, who encountered the dish in France in the late 1700s, and became enamored of it.

The Wikipedia article points out a recipe for macaroni and cheese in an influential 1824 cookbook, and it’s quite a simple one, at that: Macaroni, cheese, and butter.

Guess what? That’s not the original recipe for mac and cheese, as we know it. It’s almost certainly not the recipe that Jefferson enjoyed at the White House.

While geeking out with vintage cookbooks recently, I happened to find myself perusing a copy of The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined, by John Mollard, published in 1802. That’s during Jefferson’s tenure as President, in case you’re not up on these things. And what did I happen to find? Why a recipe for…

Now, the recipe says “To stew maccaroni” (sic), not “macaroni and cheese” (or even “maccaroni and cheese”), but a quick look at the details should leave you in little doubt that this is nothing less than 210-year-old mac and cheese.

I have made this, and it is delicious. 🙂 It’s also a lot quicker and easier than most homemade macaroni and cheese recipes, taking about half an hour, from start to completion.

Here’s what you need, and what you need to do, in modern cooking terms:

A quarter pound of flat pasta (I used farfalle)
Five ounces of cream (heavy whipping cream)
Two ounces (four tablespoons) of butter, cut into one-tablespoon chunks
Four ounces of Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated
One-quarter teaspoon salt (or less, see notes below)
one-eighth teaspoon or less cayenne pepper
Four to eight cups of beef stock (I used concentrate; you could use bouillon cubes, or whatever) – enough to cover the pasta in a saucepan


Make your beef stock, and bring it to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. While you’re waiting for that to happen, grate your Parmesan cheese. Add the macaroni to the pan, return to a boil, cook until the pasta is al dente, according to the instructions on the box, probably around eight to ten minutes. While it’s cooking, measure out the cream, and cut up the butter. Drain the cooked noodles in a colander, then return to the pan. Return the pan to the burner. Add all the butter, all the cream, and three-fourths of the grated cheese to the noodles. Stir to melt the butter and cheese, and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove from heat, and scoop into a small oven-safe baking dish. Spread it out evenly, sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top, and place under your broiler, on low, for five to eight minutes, or until the cheese on top is lightly browned. Remove from oven, let rest a couple of minutes, and serve in all its gooey, delicious goodness.

Now, it’s not the healthiest meal in the world, obviously. This is good old-fashioned stick-to-your ribs stuff, the kind of thing that makes a wonderful side dish on a snowy winter day. But, you know, it’s really pretty delicious, and there’s a certain satisfying degree of amusement that comes from cooking not only from a recipe that’s more than two centuries old, but what is one of the earliest forms of a modern-day staple.

A couple of notes:

The 1802 recipe calls for “riband maccaroni”. Riband means something flat and, well, ribbon-like. I went with farfalle, because it seemed well-suited for the recipe, but I doubt the exact pasta choice is particularly critical.

The 1802 recipe calls for “a little” of both salt and cayenne pepper. A quarter-teaspoon of coarse salt improves the recipe, in my opinion, but this may depend on how salty your beef stock is, whether you use salted or unsalted butter, and what, if anything, you use for “essence of ham”, about which more in a moment. As to the cayenne, a little goes a long way.

The original 1802 recipe calls for “a table spoonful of the essence of ham”. That is to say, essentially, pan juices from a cooked ham. Don’t have any of that in your refrigerator? Me either. I suspect it can be safely left out – as I chose to do – or you could perhaps substitute a tablespoon of the beef broth you cook the pasta in. I suspect that early nineteenth-century essence of ham would have been rather salty and slightly savory.

Wikipedia refers to a “macaroni pie” served at the White House in 1802. I can’t say for sure what that entailed, but it might be worth noting that doubling the recipe given produces an amount that will (with, again, farfalle) nicely fill a ten-inch pie pan – and after broiling for a few minutes, you’ll be left with quite a nice “crust” on the top.

There you have it, then. A simple and easy recipe from two-hundred ten years ago that’s not only delicious, but may have – in a very real sense – helped change the world, however slightly.

I encourage you to try it. I think you’ll be as impressed as I was, and I think you’ll see why Jefferson was so enamored of mac and cheese as he knew it.

Published in: Geekiness, History | on December 10th, 2012| 3 Comments »

Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. On 12/11/2012 at 9:32 am Dan Said:

    Finally, a practical use for my salamander.

  2. On 12/12/2012 at 12:32 pm Clayton Said:

    While trying to figure out what “colour with a very hot salamander” could mean, I ran into a reprinting here, along with other macaroni dishes:

  3. On 12/12/2012 at 12:59 pm Nemo Said:

    Clayton, “colour with a very hot salamander” is fairly self-explanatory – if you know what a cooking salamander is. 🙂 They were large metal presses, a bit like old solid-steel irons. You heated them on/in your stove, then set them on top of food in some dishes immediately before serving, to brown the top. Since next-to-nobody still has salamanders in their kitchen anymore, I figure sticking the dish under the broiler for a few moments is the functional modern equivalent.