From 1851: Macaroni Au Gratin

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Have you ever eaten or smelled something that immediately reminded you of something you’ve done before – like a sensory déjà vu, if you will? That’s what happened when I ate this macaroni au gratin, which is just a fancy name for macaroni and cheese! As soon as I took a bite, I knew I’d tasted it before – the creamy, saltiness of the parmesan; the way its cheesy cream sauce coated every noodle; the warm touch of the nutmeg… traditional gratins have a touch of nutmeg – don’t be afraid! And, then, as I closed my eyes, my other senses filled in the blanks. I could feel heat. I was sitting in the sun. I could hear people all around, and then a cuckoo clock. A cuckoo clock? You know where I tasted this dish before? It tastes EXACTLY like the Nudel Gratin from Germany at EPCOT! I love food and how it has the power to harness the senses and tap into memories!

So, this recipe is one of the most fascinating I’ve seen. For starters, it has a date on it. It was published in a book that came out in 1855, but since it has a specific date, let’s credit it to 1851. Second, I had to become a bit of a sleuth to make it properly. In 1851, cooks didn’t have measuring cups and spoons, so ingredients were measured by weight. I had to look up conversion charts and kind of eyeball weight measurements in some cases! And third, it comes with its own story. Right at the top of the recipe, you can see a message printed – a message whose meaning time has certainly erased: “From the girl, affected with Strabism, of the Cafe d’Europe in Naples 1851 to Geo. W. Chapman.” But, we can try to figure out what that means… Let’s give it a go! To the internet!

So, first, the book was written by Debbie Coleman. Who was she? I typed a number of variations of “Debbie Coleman” and “Cook Book” and “1855” into Google search, and finally, I came up with a link to Lancaster County, PA’s historical society, which has a recorded collection called the Coleman Papers. (Side note: Thank you Lancaster County for doing the work you’ve done to catalog your collection and make its information available online! Support your local historical societies, folks!) Now, we can go further. Within the collection, I see in a number of places the name “Debbie Brown Coleman” and references to her cookbook. And, you know what? On the cover of Cook Book, we see the initials D.B.C. I think we have a match!

So, Debbie Coleman was wealthy. The Coleman Papers tell us that. She married G. Dawson Coleman from Philadelphia, who was the heir to an iron business and went on to be a Pennsylvania senator, and she wrote a lot of letters talking about her travels and doings. When she was home, she took on her civic responsibilities, too, and she was involved in her church. So, between traveling and being at the center of her city at the church, it’s no wonder she opted to pull together recipes from everyone she knew and met to write a cookbook.

Now, our recipe mentions a man named George W. Chapman. A quick search for Chapman turns up the name of a prominent New York lawyer and politician. And, a deeper search leads us to an issue of The Times-Picayune published in New Orleans, LA on January 25, 1851. In this issue, it’s noted that the USS Cumberland of the United States Navy would be setting sail for Naples within a few days’ time. And, who was on board? 4th Lieutenant George W. Chapman. What else is interesting is that a search for Café d’Europe produces results, too. A number of descriptions of Café d’Europe in Naples, Italy around 1851 were written into books by travelers. Here’s an example written by the Emperor of Mexico in August 1851.

So, what happens when we put all of this together? Debbie Brown Coleman lived in Philadelphia with her senator husband. He undoubtedly had connections, and he would have known other politicians like George W. Chapman from New York. Chapman, on his way to becoming a lawyer and politician, traveled as he served in the Navy, spending time in Naples in 1851. There, on a weary night, he sat down to dine at the Cafe d’Europe where a lovely young girl, memorable because of the strabism (having a cross-eyed condition) she had, served him a rich, thick macaroni au gratin. When he returned home, he wrote to her for the recipe so he could taste it once again. She wrote it out for him and sent it. His wife kept it, and when she met Debbie Coleman, who was putting together a cookbook, she offered it, leaving with it the note from the girl at the Cafe d’Europe who was lost to history.

So, what are we cooking? Macaroni au gratin originally eaten at the Cafe d’Europe in 1851 whose recipe was published in Cook Book by Debbie Coleman in 1855.

I’ve typed enough for you to read by now, so let’s get into the kitchen so we can make some history!

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Here are our ingredients: Elbow macaroni, parmesan cheese, butter, flour, milk, cream (half and half), salt, and nutmeg.

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Step 1: Boil the macaroni in salted water according to package directions – easy peasy!

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Step 2: While the macaroni cooks, shred your cheese. The recipe calls for 3 oz. of cheese, and to be honest, I read it wrong, and I used 6 oz. It was delicious, so I’m going to own my mistake. Either way, you’re going to have to eyeball the weight. The block I used was 8 oz., so I shredded the whole thing and then took two thirds of it for the sauce. It ended up being a cup and a half of cheese. Leave the rest for the final step!

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Step 3: Drain the macaroni and let it cool in the colander.

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Step 4: Let’s make the sauce. Melt 3 oz. of butter in a saucepan – that’s six tablespoons to us these days.

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Step 5: Add in 1 oz. of flour. That’s about four tablespoons.

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Step 5.1: Now, I actually used rounded tablespoons here. My 21st century cooking knowledge made me do it. In making a cream sauce, you usually want to keep the butter and flour portions equal, so I kept to the 1 oz. direction with the “about four tablespoons” part, but I rounded them so that it fit my 21st century knowledge a little better. And, again, this turned out delicious, so I’m going to own it!

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Step 6: When your butter and flour have cooked together for about a minute, they should look like this – thick and puffy.

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Step 7: Add your milk slowing while you whisk. This is what it looked like after a cup was added. You’re going to add two plus some cream.

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Step 7.1: And, this is what it’ll look like after all the milk and the cream (a gill – that’s half a cup) are added. Let the mixture warm through, and it’ll become a rich, thickened sauce!

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Step 8: Add the cheese, 1/2 tsp. of salt, and 1/8 tsp. of nutmeg. Here, you can decide, too, if you want to add too much cheese like I did. Keep staunchly to the recipe if you want, but I’d recommend using more cheese, personally. You still get the authentic flavor – it’ll just be a little thicker and richer!

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Step 9: Mix and melt it all together. Mmmm cheese sauce!

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Step 10: Then, fold in your cooked macaroni!

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Step 11: Pour it all into a buttered baking dish. Mine is an 8×8″ glass dish.

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Step 12: And, top it with as much remaining shredded cheese as you’d like. Then, cut a tablespoon of butter into pieces and dot them around the top. Bake the macaroni au gratin for 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven!

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Final step: Marvel at your recreation!

It’s both sad and fascinating how easily stories, people, and lives can be lost to time. We don’t know anything about the girl who originally cooked this recipe for George Chapman, other than why she was recognizable at all – her strabism. To us, she has no name, no age, no home… nothing. She’s just a reference in a 166-year old recipe I happened to come across on the internet.

Learn your history. Write it down. Remember it. It’s possible that this girl learned to cook from her family, and that she made this dish from memory, doing things exactly as her grandmother showed her to do them. Maybe some nights, she mistakenly put in too much cheese, too! But, at least she lives on in this cookbook. She made something that created such a warm memory in a traveling soldier that years later, he sought her out in his quest to relive a piece of his past.

From 1851: Macaroni Au Gratin

  • Servings: Makes an 8x8 baking dish full
  • Difficulty: Easy to Medium
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 12 oz. elbow macaroni
  • 7 Tbs. butter
  • 4 rounded Tbs. flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup cream (like half and half)
  • 8 oz. (2 cups) parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste
  • 1/8 tsp. nutmeg, or to taste

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Boil macaroni in salted water according to package directions. Drain and let cool.
  3. Melt 6 Tbs. butter in a saucepan over medium heat.
  4. Add flour and whisk together. Cook 1-2 minutes.
  5. Slowly add in milk a cup at a time while whisking. Then, whisk in cream and heat through until a rich sauce forms.
  6. Add in 6 oz. cheese (1.5 cups), salt, and nutmeg. Whisk to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  7. Fold in macaroni.
  8. Pour into 8×8″ buttered baking dish.
  9. Bake 30 minutes.

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