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Indulge in lighter versions of everyone's favorite comfort food

Some of us grew up with the stuff in the blue box, made with bright orange powder and half a stick of butter. The lucky ones sat down to homemade, oven-baked macaroni and cheese, complete with a browned crispy topping. Whatever kind you loved as a kid, chances are you're still a fan of macaroni and cheese. Ask any group of people what their favorite comfort foods are, and, most likely, mac and cheese will make the list.

So just where did the dish everybody knows and love come from?

A type of pasta called "maccheroni" (perhaps similar to today's macaroni, but without being hollow) is thought to have been eaten in Italy as early as the 1300s. As for macaroni and cheese, this notoriously American dish goes back to Colonial times. A dish called "macaroni pie" became a favorite of a certain statesman named Thomas Jefferson, who tasted it while in Italy. He served it at his home in Monticello, and at formal parties in Washington. According to The Food Encyclopedia, Jefferson used American cheese instead of the European cheeses of the time -- and American macaroni and cheese was born.

Jefferson might not recognize the dish today, when the various versions of macaroni and cheese range from kid-friendly to gourmet. "Lobster Mac n Cheese," featuring marscarpone cheese, Havarti, and white cheddar, is a popular side dish at the upscale restaurant chain The Capital Grille. A version of macaroni and cheese using Romano, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, and pepper jack cheese is the most requested recipe from The Grand Central Baking Company in Seattle and Portland. The three cheeses in Martha Stewart's recipe for Macaroni and Three Cheeses are white cheddar, Havarti, and Muenster.

Today's mac and cheese toppings range from buttered bread that's been run through the food processor to panko crumbs or saltine crackers. But one thing's for certain in most of the recipes I found -- homemade macaroni and cheese tends to contain an abundance of butter and cream. One recipe on, for example, calls for 6 tablespoons of butter, 3 cups of whole milk and 2 cups of heavy cream!

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