Nostalgia: Horn & Hardart Macaroni & Cheese

I am not old enough to remember the Horn & Hardart Automats in NYC, which closed in the 1960's, but I always remember my dad talking about how he used to have lunch there.

Anyone from NYC or Philadelphia (older than 60) would probably remember these cafeteria style places that coined the phrase "Less Work for Mother".
They fell out of fashion when waitress style luncheonettes became more popular in the early 1950's.

Automats were cafeteria style restaurants with home style cooking that started the "vending machine" meal, offering food behind glass that could be purchased by putting a few coins in the slot and out came a hot or cold meal. Sit down in a big place and eat. My dad said the food was actually delicious!

Comfort foods, like rice pudding, mac 'n cheese, meatloaf and hearty soups were among his favorites, along with their famous New Orleans coffee.

I've always heard about their famous baked beans and macaroni and cheese from New Yorkers who are nostalgic and very proud of their food culture (pastrami sandwiches, bagels, Italian food, etc. Don't mess with us when it comes to food).

I found this recipe on Arthur Schwartz's website, a NYC radio personality and cookbook author. It can also be found in his cookbook Arthur Schwartz's NYC FOOD an Opinionated History & More than 100 Legendary Recipes (now that's a mouthful!).

This is old school all the way.
No Gruyere, no Blue cheese, no panko breadcrumbs or fancy dancy ingredients. It's simple mac and cheese made with real cheddar, milk, and cayenne. The thing that interested me was the addition of the canned crushed tomatoes. It made a pink color sauce, and I thought it sounded good.

I was right! This was our favorite macaroni & cheese recipe to date.

I added some fresh thyme to the recipe for color, and I added some extra tomatoes for the top, so it had more of an attractive look (as if macaroni & cheese wasn't attractive enough!).

I liked the simplicity of this recipe and that it took very little time to make.
I also liked that I didn't have to buy 4 different cheeses for 30 bucks, which seems to be the trend these days w/ gourmet mac 'n cheese recipes. This recipe also has a lot less fat than other mac and cheese recipes (unless you eat 3 portions, like I did!). It's a win win situation!

I make mac 'n cheese only once a year, so here is my annual contribution.

Horn & Hardart Macaroni & Cheese (adapted from The Food Maven):

8 oz. small elbow macaroni (half a box)
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (*I added a bit more)
1 1/2 cup whole milk
2 Tbsp. heavy cream
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup of diced canned tomatoes
1 1/2 Tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 cups packed Cheddar cheese, grated (*I used Trader Joe's Special Reserve white cheddar and grated it myself)
salt and pepper to taste
*I recommend adding about a tablespoon of fresh thyme

Start cooking your pasta, about 7 minutes, as per package directions.
Make the sauce in the time that the pasta is cooking on the stove.

In a deep skillet, heat the butter on low heat with the 2 tbsp of flour. Whisk about a minute until a paste is formed.

Right away, add the milk and cream to the paste and raise the heat, whisking all the while, until the sauce comes to a boil and gets nice and thick. You want a slow boil while whisking, or your milk will burn. This should take about 5 minutes total.

After the white sauce is a nice thick consistency, remove it from the heat and pour in your cup of packed cheddar cheese, and stir until melted.

Add the 1/4 cup of tomatoes (I saved some whole pieces for the top of the casserole), sugar, cayenne, salt and pepper and thyme (if using).

Drain your elbows (the macaroni, not your arms) and add them to the cheese mixture in the skillet and mix together. Yum.

Pour this yumbly mixture into a shallow or 8" x 8" greased glass casserole. I added some pieces of the chopped tomato and thyme sprigs for decoration.

Bake in a 400F oven for 25-30 minutes until edges start to brown.

Let rest a few minutes before serving. Best served right away.

Serves 6.

This is worth getting nostalgic over.



Anonymous said…
I miss hearing Arthur Schwartz on WOR. Over the holidays, Joan Hamburg had Arthur her 'radio husband' in for a visit, a real treat. Love his books, esp. SOUP SUPPERS and NAPLES AT TABLE. A real Brooklyn boy in love with Italian food. Well, make that just plain FOOD!
The JR said…
I wish we had one of those places downtown to eat at. I get so bored with the few places we have here.

That's an interesting twist on the mac.
Culinary Cory said…
Cool little history lesson. I enjoyed reading it. Gotta luv mac and cheese!
kat said…
Yeah, I gotta say with all the ways I mess with mac n cheese the classic is still a favorite
Moose said…
Actually, I think there was at least one Automat in NYC that was open into if not through the 1970s. I remember going to one as a kid, though I was born in the '60s so I suppose late '60s is possible. Hrm!
Dewi said…
I never made mac and cheese, I always dream of making this, seriously. I bookmark this recipe, hope to make it for the weekend.
Shelby said…
Love the nostalgia in your story! This recipe looks very similar to what I make minus the cayenne and tomatoes. I use regular milk all the way to instead of heavy cream. I'm sure it is yummy! I was just compaining to Grumpy that he only likes boxed mac & cheese (because that is what he wanted for dinneR!)
Ciao Chow Linda said…
Now that's what I call Mac n'cheese. I wish Arthur Schwartz still had a radio show. He is the real deal - no vanity cooking there.
Anonymous said…
Non fancy simple food is always the best imo :)
dm said…
Okay, I'll fess up (I just turned 60 last year). I remember going to Philly with my grandmother, she in hat and white gloves, via the bus from south Jersey. We ate at the automat. I loved going up and down and looking throught the slots and then putting in my money,

I love mac cheese and add sauteed onions and mushrooms in mine. Since I am a diabetic I use a lot of the onions and mushrooms and less of the macaroni.
RecipeGirl said…
What a fun post- I love nostalgic recipes :) Tomatoes in mac and cheese is a great idea!
Lisa Faley said…
YUM! My mouth is watering. Comfort food at it's best!
I loved going to the automat...thanks for the memory....making it this weekend.
Anonymous said…
When I was a little girl, my parents (mostly my father) regularly treated me to eating at Horn & Hardart. We lived in NYC for a year before moving to NJ! I was a skinny kid & so it didn't matter that I ALWAYS chose the mac & cheese with a side of Harvard beets! This is still my comfort food, but calories are more important now! The mac always was Ziti, not elbow, FYI!
I miss those days, they fly by, but I'll never lose the happy memories of the smells, sights & sounds of H & H and sprnding time with my great Dad!
I just found out about H&H recipes from a patron who bought a print of my Horn and Hardart image. SUrprised the recipes exist. Llike the idea of putting dish in oven to crisp it. Need tolook intothe rice pudding next.
Kathleen Gwinnett
Phyllis R. Charney said…
Hi, I know this blog is almost 10 years old, but I just found it when I Googled "Horn & Hardart Mac 'n' Cheese! It's in the oven NOW!
I'm a New York City native, now retired, but of course I grew up on H&H, there were many locations, not only in Manhattan, but in the other boroughs that make up New York City. I loved the mac 'n' cheese, of course, also the creamed spinach and other dishes I can't name because I haven't thought of them for decades.
One small correction: Horn & Hardart did NOT close in the '60s, at least not in NYC. The last 2 hold-outs were the one on West 57th Street, down the block from Carnegie Hall, which closed in 1977, and the one on 2nd Avenue and East 42nd Street, not far from the United Nations, which closed about 2 years later.
Anonymous said…
I am old enough to remember this but I believe it was pimentos that were used and not tomatoes.