Anne Byrn's Macaroni Pie
Mac and cheese just might be the most loved side dish in the South — right up there with mashed potatoes, pinto beans and cornbread. It’s at home with fried chicken or barbecue, even on the Thanksgiving table. Mac and cheese pleases everyone, and that goes way back to the original macaroni pie.
Early versions of mac and cheese, like the recipe I'm share today, bear little resemblance to the side dish we know. They were, essentially, broken and cooked spaghetti that was mixed with eggs, milk and cheese, all baked into a custard. Sorry to disappoint, but mac and cheese did not originate on the back of a box. It wasn’t first made with the curly, chubby macaroni noodle either. It is old.
Back 200 years or more, the word “macaroni” was a generic term for pasta. Thomas Jefferson popularized it because he served it at dinner parties. And Mary Randolph, who authored the Virginia House-Wife, cooked “macaroni” in milk and water before tossing it with cheese and butter. Adding eggs would come later, when it evolved into a light supper dish.
How macaroni pie found its place
Something called “macaroni pie” appeared in the 1976 cookbook, Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking, by Blanche S. Rhett, Lettie Gay, Helen Woodward and Elizabeth Hamilton. It was a little like an Italian recipe for spaghetti carbonara, minus the carbonara. Macaroni was boiled in salted water, drained, and while still warm, stirred with butter and egg. Then you added grated cheese and milk, and baked the mixture in a pie pan until browned and bubbly.
Because these recipes called for turning the mixture into a pie pan, they took on the name “macaroni pie.” The choice of cheese is vague, but historians believe Jefferson's enslaved chef, as well as Mary Randolph, would have used either a hard Italian cheese like Parmesan or a softer, cheddar-like hoop cheese because that is what was available throughout the South. Hoop cheese is what most Southerners used as they adapted this recipe into their own homes, getting a little bit closer to the mac and cheese of today.
I was talking with my longtime friend Nathalie Dupree of Charleston, SC, recently. Nathalie — the award-winning author of Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking and teacher who started one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the South in Atlanta in the 1970's — was reminiscing about macaroni pie. It seems her mother-in-law Celeste Dupree used to make it in Social Circle, Georgia. When Nathalie had graduated from the London Cordon Bleu and came back to the United States to open a restaurant, she settled in Social Circle. There she became fond of the recipes that Southerners prepared.
“Celeste Dupree was a matriarch of Social Circle, willowy and beautiful to her end in her 80s. A banker and entrepreneur, she could only cook the basic Southern things her mother cooked,” said Nathalie. “I doubt she ever used a recipe, but this was a [dish] she made in a Pyrex pie plate. She ate it with a salad, but it is normally only sufficient for a side dish. I double the recipe for Thanksgiving.“
Nathalie said she considers mac and cheese an important Thanksgiving side because it gives children “a familiar dish ... and I always make it with spaghetti."
Making old-fashioned macaroni pie today
For my version of macaroni pie, I wanted to blend history with Nathalie’s recollections. I wanted to create a recipe for this famous dish that would be quick and easy but also intensely flavored. I was striving for something between a spaghetti casserole, cheese custard, and, of course, mac and cheese.
What I discovered is that this recipe is much easier to make than traditional mac and cheese, which requires a white (bechamel) sauce. And it’s a lot lighter. I used 3-inch broken pieces of thin spaghetti because they cook in just four minutes.
Then I drained the spaghetti and tossed it with butter, but you could use olive oil if you like. And here is where you can have fun with this recipe. My ingredients below are simple, but you could go crazy and season the pasta with some pressed fresh garlic or dried oregano. And should the spirit move you to add some meat to this recipe, what about chopped prosciutto or minced country ham? Sprinkle that on between the layers of pasta, custard, and good Parmesan cheese. To pick up the flavors at the end, shower the top with minced fresh oregano or parsley and add a big grind of black pepper.
Undoubtedly, macaroni pie isn’t mac and cheese as today’s world knows it. But there was a time and place in our past when it was the recipe of the day. It was loved because it was exotic and different. Today we can love it because it’s easy and even uses up leftover spaghetti. Enjoy!
Serves: 6 to 8
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 50 minutes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces thin spaghetti
4 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded cheddar or cheddar-Monterey Jack blend cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, for garnish, if desired
Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place 1 tablespoon of the butter in a 2-quart casserole. Place the dish in the oven to melt while the oven heats. Once melted, remove the dish from the oven and turn to coat the bottom and sides of the pan with butter.
Break the spaghetti into thirds, making each piece about 3 inches long. Set aside. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Season with salt. Stir in the spaghetti, and continue to stir until the water comes back to a boil. Lower the heat to medium, and cook until al dente, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain in a colander. Add the remaining butter to the now-empty pot, and toss the spaghetti to coat in the butter.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. Whisk in the mustard and cayenne, and season with salt and pepper. Place half of the spaghetti in the buttered casserole. Ladle on half of the egg and mixture mixture. Sprinkle half of the cheddar over the top. Repeat, adding the remaining spaghetti to the dish, ladling in the rest of the egg and milk mixture, and top with the remaining cheddar and all of the Parmesan.
Bake until the custard is set, 30 to 35 minutes. If desired, turn on the broiler, and lightly brown the top, about 30 seconds. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve while warm.