My mom was recently in town visiting and we got to talking about food and old recipes. As a kid, we had a few staples that were part of the normal rotation. These were Mom’s go-to recipes that were either quick, easy, or fit our usually-tight budget. One of those classic go-to favorites in our house was a simple version of Mac and Cheese with tomato sauce.
I’ve talked about this dish over the years with friends and I always seem to be the only one who had Mac n Cheese this way. Everyone sort of turns up their nose when I talk about the tomato sauce and can’t get past it. To me it seems pretty natural, the tomato sauce adds a bit of acidity and a depth of flavor that regular Mac doesn’t usually have. In talking to my mom, she says this recipe was part of her childhood experience as well.
My grandmother used to make this Mac n Cheese for dinners when my mom was a kid. I do remember occasionally having it at my grandmother’s house but never realized that it was a recipe passed down to my mom. As we talked more about it, my mom recalled her own grandmother, my great-grandmother, making this Mac n Cheese as well.
My great-grandmother’s version was chunkier, likely made with home-canned stewed tomatoes from the pantry. In all likelihood, during the Great Depression era, her tomatoes came from her own garden or were bartered for with the rancher she worked for. Later, I’m sure she turned to store-bought canned goods like everyone else. My grandmother’s version was made with store-bought canned tomato sauce. It was my mother who started mixing tomato sauce and tomato paste to make a thicker, richer sauce. I do like the thicker sauce and have tried to make it with just tomato paste, but it comes out too thick. I have also experimented with different kinds of pasta, but I always come back to the good ol’ elbow macaroni.
One component of this dish that is signature to all three (now four) generations is the cheese. The combination of Longhorn Cheddar and Monterey Jack is key to getting the right cheesy flavor and a good melty consistency. Also unique to this dish is how the cheese is handled. Instead of blending grated cheese into the dish for a smooth, creamy cheese sauce, the cheese is cubed and folded in. Cutting the cheese roughly into half-inch chunks and loosely folding it into the pasta to melt gives you a finished dish with pockets of gooey, melty cheese…just like Mom used to make.
- 1 16 oz package Elbow Macaroni Pasta (uncooked)
- 1 15 oz Can Tomato Sauce
- 1 6 oz Can Tomato Paste
- 6 oz Longhorn Cheddar, cubed
- 6 oz Monterey Jack, cubed
- Salt and Pepper to taste
- In a medium pot, cook pasta in salted, boiling water until well done (we always had very soft pasta with this dish).
- Drain pasta and return to pan on reduced heat.
- Add tomato sauce and tomato paste. Stir gently into pasta.
- Cook on low heat for a few minutes until pasta and sauce is hot. Stir occasionally, not too much.
- Add half of the cheese cubes and carefully fold into the pasta.
- Add the remaining cheese cubes and carefully fold into the pasta.
- Turn off the heat, cover the pot and leave it on the burner until the cheese has melted.
This is comfort food, plain and simple.
This is a quick meal that is filling without breaking the budget, which defines our childhood menu. It reminds me of rainy day dinners, Saturday afternoon lunches, and gathering around the table with my family. Knowing that this recipe goes all the way back to my great-grandmother deepens my connection to the dish. This Tomato Mac n Cheese may actually be the first recipe I ever learned to make as a kid in the kitchen.