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Mac and cheese: Think outside the box for this classic comfort food

| November 1, 2016 1:00 AM

The subject of macaroni and cheese came up the other day, causing me to wonder about the different ways to make it.

A lot of us are familiar with the blue box mac and cheese option, or the variety of one-offs made in a similar fashion. There are also options with a liquid cheese packet, or even microwaveable. Have you ever stopped to think how much better those boxed options would taste if you altered the recipe just a small amount?

For many years, the way I’ve made those boxed mac and cheeses was with a dose of heavy cream, instead of the butter and milk the recipe calls for. I’ve also added a small amount of shredded cheddar cheese from time to time. I’d never stopped to consider which tasted better, the boxed mix prepared as directed, or my way. It was time to find out.

I reconvened my test panel, with ages ranging from 16 to 70, with equal amounts of male and female. I made up the blue box stuff as directed, the blue box as I would prefer, then some from scratch without a recipe, though I did write it out. It wasn’t really hard for the panel to figure out which batch was which, though my instructions suggested that each be judged on its own merits before going back through and picking a favorite.

No one liked the mac and cheese as prepared per the directions on the box, even though I gave it a fighting chance by having it served first. One taster identified it right off the bat and openly questioned whether it actually had any cheese. Another taster said it “tastes like box” was “one-dimensional” and was “greasy.” One taster was rather wordy and went on to say “Small pasta size doesn’t carry enough sauce; sauce actually feels ‘painted on’ rather than loosely coating the pasta. By this I mean, the pasta could have come with orange coloring in itself, then just adding a liquid to make it moist. Not a sauce as much as colorant. Cheese not identifiable with any flavor. Bland Typical ‘appease the kid’ junk food. It seems to have almost no fat content.’

The boxed mac and cheese prepared with heavy cream and a bit of real cheddar instead of the butter and milk fared far better, even becoming one taster’s favorite of the choices. One said “Really cheddary taste.” Another said “good mouth feel” and “cheese has some flavor depth.” Another said “A good amount of sauce; nice cheddar flavor.” The wordy taster said “Same small pasta, thicker cheese is only thing holding the sauce to the pasta. Clearly an upgrade to the first version. Stringy cheese is always preferable, but it’s not really deep in flavor. Definitely more texture, mouth-feel to the overall dish. There is a slightly higher fat content, but it’s hard to determine whether it comes from the cheese or another source.”

The scratch recipe was the overall winner. It did include a larger pasta, penne, a heavy cream sauce, some seasonings, and a dose of Cougar Gold cheese. One taster said “Amazing cheese flavor!” Another said “It is mild yet robust and sauce is light and gourmet; very tasty.” The wordy taster had a lot to say “Looks like pasta alfredo, though with a penne vs the boxed mac and cheese. What I like is that the sauce can coat both the inside and outside of the entire length of the pasta. The cheese is identifiable as a high-end variety with a nice sharp tang, and thus very finely grainy with the sharp crystals. The sauce is more fluid than the other two, but relies more on a built sauce rather than just extra cheese. Sauce has a rich depth that is satisfying vs simply filling as is typical of mac and cheese. The fat content is higher, and clearly comes from cream rather than cheese.” One taster didn’t care for this option as much and said “Sauce is grainy; overpowering cheese flavor.”

BETTER BOXED MAC AND CHEESE

6 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

One blue box macaroni and cheese

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

In a saucepan, bring 6 cups of water and salt to a boil. Add dry pasta from box and cook 7 to 8 minutes, reducing heat to medium high. Cook until tender; drain in a colander. Return to the pan and add heavy cream and contents of dry cheese packet. Stir until well mixed. Add cheddar; stir to combine. Serve.

DAN’S MAC AND CHEESE

2 cups heavy cream (at least 36 percent)

1/3 teaspoon salt

8 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

8 ounces pasta, like penne

1 cup shredded cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, bring cream and 1/3 teaspoon salt to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently. Allow to reduce by half. In another pot, add water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until tender, time depending on what style of pasta being cooked, reducing heat to medium high. Stir occasionally. Drain pasta in a colander and allow to drain well. Stir into reduced cream sauce and add cheese. Stir to combine. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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