By Dana Zia
All these years of living in Tillamook county and I have never written an article on our local national celebrity, Tillamook cheddar cheese. It seems that cheddar is underappreciated. Perhaps this is because it is so ubiquitous and is the silent majority among cheese eaters that it is taken for granted, but cheddar cheese is an important chapter of American food history and foundational in our area.
Cheddar cheese was birthed in England, surprisingly enough, in a town called “Cheddar”. It has always been made from cow’s milk and is a traditional humble farm cheese that every farm wife knew how to make. The recipe came over to America in the handbags of the immigrants and settled on our shores and in our mouths for good.
Cheddar is crumbly when aged and smooth when young and tends to vary in color from pale white to creamy yellow depending on the cow’s milk. When this fair cheese become the first factory cheese made in the world in upstate New York in 1851, they started the “cheddar” yellow color we are used to seeing with annatto seed coloring, to standardize the color of the cheese.
Interestingly enough, the first pioneers came to Tillamook County that same year, 1851. It seems this place was fated to be a cheesy place from the beginning. When the pioneers arrived here it didn’t take them long to figure out that with all the rivers, flood plains and rich green grass almost all year long, it was the perfect place for dairy farms.
There was just one tiny issue….there was no way to get their beautiful milk to Portland except over a very bumpy wagon trail. So they made cheddar cheese to stabilize the product and shipped it to Portland in the now famous ship “Morning Star”, since the ocean was the only “reliable” way to go. The rest is history. Now Tillamook cheese is famous and we are known as the place of cheese, seas and ocean breeze.
Is there a better way to enjoy cheddar cheese than to make macaroni and cheese? Epicurious.com, one of the best recipe websites around, reports that mac and cheese is the top search on their website in the winter. No, wonder, it is true comfort food on steroids. This recipe that I am sharing with you has been in my family since I can remember. It was always a favorite and would disappear before you could say “cheddar”. No, it is not a healthy food but it is good for your soul in our dark and stormy winter.
Farmstead Mac and Cheese
This recipe can be made super simple by skipping the cheese sauce but taking a little more time to make the cheese sauce truly makes this dish amazing! If you really want to make “crack in a pan”, do one more step and bake it in the oven with cheese on top. Good luck not eating it all by yourself but it can serve four hungry people. If you are a true no-frills mac and cheese person, omit the ham and veggies.
One 16 oz bag of uncooked elbow macaroni
2 cups of cheddar cheese, grated large
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups of diced celery
3 cups of diced ham
1 TBLS of high heat oil such as coconut or avocado
Cheese sauce AKA Béchamel sauce
2 Tbls of butter
2 Tbls of flour
1.5 cups of milk, preferably whole, preheated in the microwave to about 100 degrees.
1 cup of grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Start this comfort food with boiling your elbow macaroni. Bring large pot of water on high heat to a furious boil with a dash of salt and olive oil in it. Carefully pour your macaroni into the boiling water, stirring to keep it from sticking to the bottom and bring it back to a boil. Then reduce the heat to medium-high and boil till just done, about 8-10 mins.
While the macaroni is boiling, sauté the onion and ham for 5-8 mins in the coconut oil till the onions are translucent and the ham is browning slightly. Drain the cooked macaroni and then put back in the pot and add the cheese, raw celery, sautéed onion and ham and mix well. (I don’t like to sauté the celery, we enjoy the crunch of it raw in there. But if you would like to sauté it with the onions and ham, go for it)
You can honestly eat the mac and cheese now with a little salt and pepper as the cheese melts nicely into the hot noodles but I like to go one step further and make a lovely cheese sauce to add to it. To do this, melt the two tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat in a wide high sided skillet or saucepan. As soon as it is melted and bubbling, sprinkle the two tablespoons of flour over the butter and whisk it while it cooks for a couple more minutes. (Don’t let it overbrown or you will ruin your sauce.)
While whisking, pour in your warm milk and keep on whisking, till it comes back to a boil. Now lower the stove temperature to a medium heat and keep whisking. It will start to beautifully thicken. After it has gotten fairly thick, turn the heat off the pan and add the cheese while stirring. Add a bit of salt and pepper to taste (I use about a 1/4 tsp of both) and behold the creamy cheesey sauce our childhood dreams are made of!
Pour over the waiting noodle mix and stir in. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve right away. If you want to go and extra mile, pour into a baking dish and cover with grated cheddar cheese. Pop into a pre-heated oven at 400 degrees and bake till the top is bubbly and just starting to brown, about 15 mins. Heaven in a pan.