One of the projects that has been sitting in my queue is medieval-era pasta. Pasta isn’t really a food that people generally associate with the Middle Ages, but it was there. However, it didn’t really become widespread outside of Italy until the 14th and 15th centuries.
Marco Polo is often (falsely) credited with introducing pasta to Europe after his trip to China, but by the time he described various noodle dishes in his book (cir. 1300), it was already popular in Italy. He may have brought Chinese rice noodles and other ingredients back with him, but not pasta.
One origin theory is that some form of pasta was spread by early Arab traders. Nomadic tribes were known to dry pasta for easy transport, sometimes in hollow shapes, which was described as early as 1154 AD by Arab geographer Al-Idrin. Ancient Greeks and Romans made a sheet of sliced wheat pasta for a dish called laganae, so fresh pasta was hardly a new concept. Regardless of how and when pasta originally arrived, Italians embraced it and both dried and fresh pasta became a permanent staple in Mediterranean cuisine.
Pasta with Cheese
Now that we know Italian-style pasta was well established in medieval Europe, the question is when did macaroni and cheese show up? The history of this dish is heavily disputed, so it depends on how narrow you want to define “macaroni and cheese.”
The general consensus is that the earliest recorded recipe of pasta layered with cheese is from the 14th-century Italian cookbook Liber de Coquina. Due to the widespread culinary exchange happening in courts throughout Europe at the time, an altered version of this Italian dish made its way to England under the name Macrows.
In Italy, the generic word maccheroni refers to a type of pasta made with durum wheat semolina flour. It can come in a variety of shapes, not just the elbow variety Americans call “macaroni.” Flat strips of fresh wheat pasta could also still be considered maccheroni.
I am not going to walk you through the evolution of maccheroni/macaroni and cheese, as it’s been done before. Instead, I’ll show you how to make one of the earliest known recipes that served as a sort of prototype for the modern dish.
I decided to focus on the English Macrows instead of the older Italian Lasanis because the latter is, in my opinion, more of a cheese lasagna than a “macaroni and cheese.” Both recipes are posted below so you can come to your own conclusion.
Macrows (Forme of Cury, circa 1390)
The English version uses unspecified lengths of sliced pasta layered with butter and cheese.
Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerve it on pieces, and cast hem on boilling water & seep it wele; take chese and grate it and butter cast hynethen and above as losyns and serve forth.
Take and make a thin foil of dough and slice it into pieces, and put them in boiling water and cook it well; Take grated cheese and butter and layer above as lasagna and serve forth.
De Lasanis (Liber de Coquina, early 14th century)
This version calls for square pieces of cooked pasta layered with cheese and spices, probably a powder fort (“strong powder”). It might have been eaten with a kind of skewer.
De lasanis : ad lasanas, accipe pastam fermentatam et fac tortellum ita tenuem sicut poteris. Deinde, diuide eum per partes quadratas ad quantitatem trium digitorum. Postea, habeas aquam bullientem salsatam, et pone ibi ad coquendum predictas lasanas. Et quando erunt fortiter decocte, accipe caseum grattatum. Et si uolueris, potes simul ponere bonas species puluerizatas, et pulueriza cum istis super cissorium. Postea, fac desuper unum lectum de lasanis et iterum pulueriza; et desuper, alium lectum, et pulueriza : et sic fac usque cissorium uel scutella sit plena. Postea, comede cum uno punctorio ligneo accipiendo.
My English translation:
Lasagna: For lasagna, take fermented dough and shape it as thin as you can. Then divide it into square parts three fingers wide. After that, take salted boiling water and cook the lasagna in it. When it is fully cooked, take the grated cheese. If you would like, you can add good quality powdered spices, and put the powder on them when they are in the dish. After that, put on a layer of lasagna and powder, and again put on top another layer and powder, and continue until the dish is full. Then, eat by puncturing them with a wooden stick/utensil.
- 2 c. wheat or semolina flour
- 2 c. grated soft cheese (parmesan, emmenthaler, provolone, gruyere)
- 1-2 T. butter
Step ONE: The Dough
Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh…
There is a lasagna recipe in the Forme of Cury called Losyns, which gives a better idea of the type of dough we should use. I’ll refer back to that same recipe again in Step Three. Based on that, we can assume that the dough used for Macrows is just water, flour, and salt.
To make my dough, I followed a basic Italian recipe found here. I ended up using more water than the author did, probably an additional 3 tablespoons. This is possibly because I live at a much higher elevation.
Put 2 cups of flour (plus optional 1/4 tsp salt) in a bowl and make a well. Add 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons water and stir until combined. Knead until the dough is soft but doesn’t stick to your hands. If necessary, add water in small increments at a time as needed. Shape into a ball and let it rest for 30 minutes. The air in my house is very dry so I dampened a tea towel with warm water and covered the bowl.
Step TWO: Slice and Boil the Pasta
…kerve it on pieces, and cast hem on boilling water & seep it wele
When the dough is ready, knead it a bit to soften then roll it out thin. Without a pasta roller this can take some time, but try not to give up before the pasta is around 1/8 of an inch thick. At the end of the day it can be as thick as you want, but thinner is better. Stretch it by hand if you have to.
Macrows doesn’t give us any clues about what size or shape these pieces should be. You could do squares like the Italian lasanis, but I opted for something more straightforward like wide fettuccine. Shape your dough into a sort of rectangle and trim the edges if you want your pasta to be cut more evenly. Slice into strips. Another method is to roll up your dough rectangle then just slice it that way.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. The recipe doesn’t mention salt, but the recipes in that book and many others rarely explicitly mention salt. It is just assumed the cook would already know to do that.
Boil for somewhere between 6-10 minutes until cooked through. Drain and set aside.
Step THREE: Layer
take chese and grate it and butter cast hynethen and above as losyns and serve forth.
Here is where we need to refer back to the losyns recipe, which is also found in The Forme of Cury.
Loseyns: Take gode broth and do in an erthen pot, take flour of payndemayn and make therof past with water. and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller, drye it harde and seethe it in broth take Chese ruayn grated and lay it in disshes with powdour douce. and lay theron loseyns isode as hoole as thou mizt. and above powdour and chese, and so twyse or thryse, & serue it forth.
This loseyns (lasagna) recipe is shockingly similar to Liber de Coquina’s lasanis, which supports my position that lasanis is not the oldest macaroni and cheese recipe, but macrows is.
Based on the loseyns recipe, we know that macrows should use “chese ruayn,” which is a soft grate-able rennet cheese. This could be referring to an actual historic cheese called “ruen” or any cheese made of rennet. The best period cheeses made of rennet would be parmesan, gruyere, comte, and emmental. Mozzarella came later, as did provolone, but you could use those as well if you don’t care about being 100% authentic.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup of grated cheese and approximately 1/2 tablespoon of butter into a dish and scoop 1/3 of the cooked pasta into it. Sprinkle a second layer of cheese and butter over the pasta. Repeat this with two more layers of pasta. You may want to heat the dish in the oven long enough for the cheese to melt, or you can just serve as is.
This is an excellent recipe. It is very simple, and my 8 year-old son genuinely enjoyed it. Making fresh pasta by hand is somewhat labor intensive, but it is very worth it!
I salted both my dough and my boiling water, so it was exactly as flavorful as I wanted it to be. I used a combination of parmesan and gruyere for the cheese and took it a bit easy on the butter. Because the pasta isn’t in sheets like lasagna there was no need to cut, you just scoop it out onto the plate like you would for any macaroni and cheese.
When it comes to family-friendly medieval recipes, this one is definitely a winner.
- 2 c. flour
- 1/2 c. plus 2 T. water
- 1/4 tsp. salt (optional)
- 2 c. grated cheese (parmesan, gruyere, or similar)
- 1-2 T. butter
To make the dough: Combine flour and optional salt in a bowl. Make a well and add water. Mix and knead until the dough is soft. Add additional water by the tablespoon, if necessary. Knead into a ball and let rest, covered, for 30 minutes.
Roll the pasta dough out thin, approximately 1/8 inch. Slice into 1-2 inch strips or squares. Bring a pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta 6-10 minutes or until done. Drain and set aside. In a dish, sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese and some butter at the bottom of the dish. Layer 1/3 of the pasta in the dish. Sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese and add butter on top. Add two more layers of pasta. Warm in the oven until the cheese is mostly melted, 5-10 minutes. Serve.
Sources and Further Reading
- Avey, Tori. “Uncover the History of Pasta.” PBS: The History Kitchen. July 26, 2012. https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/uncover-the-history-of-pasta/
- Graham, Adam H. “Macaroni Cheese’s Mysterious Origins.” BBC Travel. January 31, 2018.
- Marchetti, Silvia. “Chinese noodles not the inspiration for pasta, historians say, its roots are in ancient Greece – and they have the texts to prove it.” South China Morning Post. April 23, 2020.