Vintage recipes – Old Fashioned Macaroni and Cheese, 1910

Macaroni cheese is probably my ultimate in comfort food (well, second to my mum’s world-beating mashed potato). It sounds to me like a fairly modern, American invention – after all, I thought the British were introduced to proper pasta in about 1975. At least, I’ve got a promotional pasta cookery pamphlet from 1978 that talks about its chosen foodstuff as a new and original thing. (It also has a strange lasagne recipe too – no meat sauce at all, just béchamel on every layer with chopped ham. I need to try it one day.)

But no! I was as wrong in this assumption as I could be. It turns out a version of mac ‘n’ cheese is in what might be the world’s oldest cookery book, Forme of Cury, from the late fourteenth century. There, it consists of fresh dough boiled in sheets and sandwiched in layers of cheese and butter. A bit like that lasagne from 1978. Elizabeth Raffald provides the first macaroni cheese recipe we’d properly recognise, in her The Experienced English Housekeeper of 1769, and Mrs Beeton included two recipes for it in her 1861 Book of Household Management.

And my excellent copy of Mrs Rea’s Cookery Book from 1910 has its own version too, below.

Ruth Goodman’s Victorian Farm tells me that the word macaroni in 19th Century recipes was used to describe all shaped pasta and that the macaroni usually available in Victorian shops was very thick and required a long cooking time to soften. This explains the timing of an hour’s boiling in my Edwardian recipe, I expect, rather than a preference for boiling it to a mush, like their carrots. The macaroni also came in long tubes, which you had to cut into smaller lengths yourself. And apparently it also needed washing.

8Mrs-Rea-macaronicheese

I gave it a go, changing a few things for the modern world.

No boiling of the macaroni for a hour, and no browning it in front of a fire, sadly. Also, I’m not sure how many people the recipe is intended for, as the book doesn’t mention this for any of the recipes. But 3oz of pasta was not enough for two greedy 21st century portions so I upped the amount to 5oz. It’s unusual that there is more cheese by weight than macaroni in the recipe – despite adding more pasta, I kept the sauce amounts exactly the same, and it worked fine. Although the recipe seems to guide you to throw all the sauce ingredients together without cooking but maybe white sauces were too obvious to give much direction for. I like that soft cheese curds were also an option instead of the grated hard cheese.

Here it is.

Macaroni and Cheese.

3oz macaroni (I used 5oz)
4oz cheese
1oz flour
1 1/2oz butter
1/2 pint milk
Pepper, salt, cayenne, 1/2 tsp mustard powder

Wash the macaroni, drop it in short lengths into 1 pint boiling water. Add a little salt and 1/2 oz butter. Cook gently about 1 hour, then drain.

Grate the cheese or, if soft, press with a wooden spoon through a wire sieve. Put 1 oz of butter into a saucepan with the flour. Mix and add the milk and seasonings. Stir in 3oz of the cheese, add the macaroni, and mix.

Turn into a hot, greased pie dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese over. Brown in front of fire. Serve very hot.

Old fashioned macaroni and cheese, in a pie dish

Old fashioned macaroni and cheese, in a pie dish

It was definitely of the old, plain school of macaroni cheese, which would be too non-jazzed-up to be included in a recipe book these days. But that what I like about Mrs Rea – good, solid, day to day recipes that work, rather than a recipes dreamed up by a celebrity chef purely in order to have an original theme for their new cook book.  Plain it might be, but lovely, smooth and tasty nonetheless. I will be making it again. In fact, writing this post now, I wish there was some left that I could eat Nigella-style in front of the fridge, but it’s all gone.

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2 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    You note that no instructions were given to cook the cheese sauce. Actually, I believe that’s what the portion of browning at the fire and serving hot probably referenced. Macaroni and cheese recipes of the era were often baked pasta dishes — you boiled the pasta, added the sauce ingredients, then cooked them in the oven. I’ve seen a very similar portioned dish from a 1883 cookbook that actually is a little clearer on this step…

    What were the neighboring dishes like in the cookbook? In the ’83 book, most of the ones leading to Mac and cheese were baked, so after a while started getting a bit sketchier on instructions, relying a lot on “Make the macaroni like in the previous, but instead of using…” and just noted the changes. Your author may have meant to do that, and just got lazy. 🙂

  2. An early and minimalist recipe for macaroni and cheese, with cooked macaroni, slices of cheese, and butter.

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