Before I knew anything about President Reagan—his acting career, his presidency, his legacy—I knew about his macaroni and cheese. His favorite mac and cheese, and mine, too.
Stouffer's and Easy Mac were my back-up mac and cheeses, but I considered these to be cheese soups—all slick with no crunch, all goop with nothing to grasp. Reagan's choice is more sliceable than spoonable. Its defining feature is its inches-thick cheese comforter, where the noodles are suspended in (rather than swimming in) a layer of crisped cheddar. There are some softer, freer noodles below, too, with a barely-there sauce; these serve as relief from the crunch and chew. But if you're looking for lusciously creamy, look elsewhere:
Where did the recipe come from? In my house, from a cut-out of the Baltimore Sun; it was part of our family's weekly dinner rotation along with a very boring but very good lasagna (no meat, no vegetables, just cheese and tomato sauce) and lots of undressed pasta and steamed vegetables. (This was before A New Way to Dinner existed.)
But the recipe was first published in the 1987 White House Family Cookbook by Henry Haller. Six years earlier, when President Reagan was recovering from an injury he sustained during an assassination attempt just two months after he took office, the White House kitchen provided him with some of his "all-time favorites, including Macaroni and Cheese."
"This dish was prepared in the manner the President prefers," the headnote reads, "the noodles well cooked and covered with a very light cheese sauce spiked with mustard." (The headnote also includes an anecdote that when Reagan walked into the E.R. at George Washington University Hospital, he joked with the doctors, "Please assure me you're all Republicans.")
The original recipe calls for the milk to be warm, for 1/2 teaspoon of Worcestershire to go in with the mustard, and for the top to be sprinkled with paprika. My mom bypassed all of these suggestions, choosing to sprinkle with even more cheese instead. A grind of black pepper would be nice, too. If you prefer noodles that won't fall apart under the pressure of your fork, drain them while they're still al dente.
"Serve at once," the recipe suggests "either as a light entrée accompanied by a hot green vegetable and a crisp salad, or as a side dish with Hamburgers or Meat Loaf"—very American. (I prefer it the next day, sliced into a rectangle and reheated in the microwave.)
It'd be absurd to suggest that Reagan's great taste in macaroni and cheese (his favorite is, in many ways, similar to Amanda Hesser's) should shed any light on his presidency or his lasting effects, good, bad, or neutral, on the state of our country, or that anything—even a simple casserole—is exempt from the influence of politics.
But I won't go there. This is a very good macaroni and cheese. And one that I hope brings us some comfort, just as it did Reagan, this election season and beyond.
- 1/2 pound dried macaroni
- 1 teaspoon butter
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon dried mustard powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup milk
- 3 cups sharp grated cheddar cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
Oh, and look! The handsome Staub we baked it in:
Have you cooked from The White House Cookbook? And have you found any keepers? Tell us in the comments below!