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A lot of history in mac ’n’ cheese

Chef Leonard Hollander displays his Baked Mac n Cheese MariStreet Cheese Market 100 S. MariStreet  Oak Park Illinois Tuesday

Chef Leonard Hollander displays his Baked Mac n Cheese at Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street , Oak Park, Illinois on Tuesday, December 11, 2012. | Al Podgorski-Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 10, 2013 6:01AM

Why do we like mac ’n’ cheese as much as we do? It goes beyond it simply being a comfort food from childhood.

As simple and familiar as it is, it is truly sweeping in its significance to American culinary history. President Thomas Jefferson supposedly popularized the dish by serving it at the White House: York Cheddar cheese with his homemade pasta, or as he called it “macaroni.”

Chicago-based Kraft Foods produced an easy-to-make version in a box in 1937. From the moment the inexpensive “Kraft Dinner,” as it was originally named, was available, it became an instant hit and a simple suppertime staple.

As with all basic foods, it was easy for families to enhance the dish. Sausage, Spam, hot dogs, eggs, broccoli, sweet peppers, hot chiles — people added whatever they could think of to stretch the dish into something more satisfying.

Baking is considered the traditional way to prepare the dish. President Jefferson baked his casserole-style. This is how we do it.

If you’re baking yours, slightly undercook the pasta as it will have extra time to soften in the oven. If you plan on eating the dish right away from the stovetop, cook the pasta fully before adding the rest of the ingredients. Either way, don’t overcook the pasta.

With baked mac ’n’ cheese, you get lots of wonderful textures. To me, the perfect version gives you plenty of crunch on top, a gooey tug from the cheese and the firm richness of macaroni.

Leonard Hollander is the chef at Marion Street Cheese Market, 100 S. Marion, Oak Park.

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