Pasta

Politics Aside, President Reagan's Favorite Mac & Cheese is Also My Own

October 18, 2016

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.)

I probably wouldn't go so far as to call this sophisticated. But delicious? Yes.

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."

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"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.")

What "light entrées" looked like in 1981. Photo by James Ransom

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 [...] as a light entrée accompanied by a hot green vegetable.

"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.

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!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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10 Comments

Jane April 27, 2017
I made this tonight and followed the recipe exactly. It was a hit with the family. I especially liked the texture. I think it might be because this mac & cheese doesn't have added flour in the roux. Just milk and egg to make it a "custard" like you mentioned. Yummy!
 
Paula P. November 23, 2016
Oh come on people!! My mother was making this 60 years ago so what does that have to do with politics?? If you don't want to be an American" then put on your panties AND LEAVE!!!
 
Marcie G. October 24, 2016
I've been looking for a great recipe like this for a long time - thanks! It wouldn't matter to me if it came from the Green Party, Independent, or Dem's. I really doubt that a recipe will persuade anyone to vote one way or the other. If it did, we Really are in Big trouble! Take a chill pill people.
 
Nancy W. October 19, 2016
I have been making this macaroni and cheese for my family, and for any party or potluck involving children, for many years. The recipe is reliable, I always have these simple ingredients around, and the dish is very popular. My recipe is from a Congressional Cookbook (that reaches across the aisle).
 
Phyllis A. October 19, 2016
Finally, "real" macaroni and cheese. This is the dish my family has been serving. We always considered that stovetop stuff ridiculous.
 
SKK October 18, 2016
Surprised that Food52 has gone political at this time in the election cycle. Why Reagan why now? After the election perhaps.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. October 18, 2016
Hi SKK! Not supposed to be political at all. That's why I wrote, "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." Sorry if I gave the wrong impression, however!
 
Sara D. October 19, 2016
Oh jeez. I'm no fan of Reagan's but I don't think it's a crazy idea to feature favorite dishes of presidents at election time.
 
Chris C. October 18, 2016
In 1985, I found this recipe in a cookbook assembled by a women's organization at the Air Force Academy. It remains a family favorite to this day. In the spirit of health conscious eating we sometimes make it with cauliflower.
 
benedict October 19, 2016
How do you incorporate the cauliflower and how much