Macaroni and cheese: Experts reveal how to make an exceptionally tasty dish
CLEVELAND, Ohio – After eating my way through 18 interpretations of mac ‘n’ cheese at the Mac ‘N’ Cheese Throwdown this month, I know there is no one perfect macaroni and cheese recipe. There are many. Different people like different things, and different moods inspire different desires.
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Given a choice, I’m a mac ‘n’ cheese snob looking for unusual cheese blends and toppings. But I will eat bright orange Kraft macaroni and cheese, though not because I think it’s particularly good. It is known from my childhood and brings back good memories. That, I think, makes it a comfort food.
Great grown-up mac ‘n’ cheese, however, is the ultimate comfort food…a creamy combination of carbs, cheese, and salty toppings. And I can always use more comfort.
As I judged mac ‘n’ cheese creations at the Throwdown, a sold-out fundraiser for Working Animals Giving Service for Kids (WAGS 4 Kids), an audience filled two rooms at The Madison event center in Cleveland. They also collected information about their favorites.
I couldn’t let all that flavor research go to waste (even if it did go to the waist, lol), so I talked to several experts for advice on making the most enjoyable version of the dish.
Pink Piggy BBQ, a Macedona-based food truck and catering company, created the judges’ favorite modern mac ‘n’ cheese. “Modern” simply meant that manufacturers could add more than just macaroni and cheese. Their version was a brisket, burnt end mac ‘n’ cheese.
“Everything we make starts at home. We start with basic recipes and add favorite ingredients to them,” said Christina Shahriari, owner and pitmaster. “Our white cheddar mac is a clean, basic recipe with a little kick. We use aged white cheddar, lots of cream and garlic with our favorite spicy pepper in the mix.”
“It has to be at least a three-year-old cheddar. Parmesan and Asiago add something extra special, and we think you bring out the garlic more,” she said.
“I like to showcase my low and slow wood-fired smoked foods with the delicious mac and cheese. Pink Piggy BBQ ‘Oinker’ Rub on roasted ends, pulled pork and pulled chicken makes a great stuffed mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Shahriari’s pasta of choice is cavatappi.
“The curled edges soak up the cheese when we add the sauce. Plus, it holds up to the smoky goodness on top,” she said.
For home cooks: “Start simple and delicious, then add your flair. Whether you’re a yellow ‘Mac’er’ or like something more edgy, try the new cheese (slowly). Love life and have fun. “
When Jose Melendez, owner of Twisted Taino in Parma, put mac ‘n’ cheese on the menu for a special event recently, it went over so well with customers that he made it permanent. This year, the chef tweaked it a little further. The results surprised him.
“I knew our recipe was special,” he said, “but I never expected to finish third best mac ‘n’ cheese at the Throwdown. After that milestone, we’ve decided to add our ‘Birria mac ‘n’ cheese’ to the daily menu.”
Birria is a Mexican-style braised beef that has been popular in taco and quesadilla fillings.
“I wanted to do a Latin twist on mac ‘n’ cheese,” Melendez said. “I think it worked. I like that it has different layers of flavor, from poblano cheese sauce made from scratch, built with flavors from charred poblanos, garlic, onion powder, Monterrey pepper jack cheese, as well as Birria with hints of cinnamon, guajillo pepper, chipotle and finished with chopped cilantro and onion. It’s just an explosion of flavor that reminds you of Mexico in every bite.”
The recipe came from experimenting in the kitchen.
“I’m Puerto Rican and my wife, Chef Cristina, is Mexican,” he says. “We’ve been offering Birria tacos with Christina’s Birria recipe for about two years. We’re told it’s one of the best Birria people have had in Greater Cleveland. With that, we started experimenting with flavors and making sure we had the perfect cheese sauce for the mix.”
Christina uses elbow or farfalle pasta shapes because the cheese sauce adheres well.
“I focused on the flavor profile, although a good melting cheese is a must,” she said. “For the Birria mac ‘n’ cheese, we use cream cheese, mozzarella and Monterrey jack. Not only do they melt well, but add a great flavor profile.”
However, the complete recipe is secret. She recommends trial and error to develop a recipe. “Mac ‘n’ cheese isn’t really a Latin forte. But I researched original baked mac ‘n’ cheese recipes online, and from there I knew the basics and the basics,” she said. “Then we started experimenting with substitutions and flavorings and kept trying until we got it. Just keep working on your recipe until you’re happy with it and see a smile on others when they try it.”
It only makes sense to add a cheesemonger to a mac ‘n’ cheese story. Kandice Marchant of Marchant Manor Cheese Shop in Cleveland Heights is a fan of the popular dish.
“I make Alton Brown baked mac ‘n’ cheese as well as a New York Times no-boil mac ‘n’ cheese,” she said. “The no-cook recipe includes pureed cottage cheese and cream and cheddar for a nice texture that you can get without cooking the noodles.”
Of course, she recommends Marchant Manor Hathaway cottage cheese because it uses rich Guernsey cream and creme fraiche.
For a fancy version, Marchant recommends (and sells) sharp cheddar, parmesan and blue cheeses. And for an everyday version, she suggests cheddar and provolone. Her advice to aspiring aficionados is, “Grate your own cheese. Packaged, grated cheeses include cornstarch and anti-caking agents that can inhibit smooth melting.”
It’s no surprise that Sera Nelson, who coordinates the Throwdown and is the executive director of WAGS 4 Kids, has her own take on mac ‘n’ cheese.
“My recipes have been passed down from my grandmother Jeanne Goodman to my mother Wendy Crann and now to me,” she said. “I’ve always loved all of our competitors and what they bring to the table. But – there’s no place like home.”
Sera Nelson’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese
8 oz velvet
4 oz Fontina, grated
4 oz smoked gouda, shredded
8 oz sharp cheddar, grated
2 oz pecorino Romano, finely grated
2 tsp – 1 tbsp. (to taste) brown mustard (or 1/2 – 1 tsp dry mustard)
1/2 – 2 tsp garlic powder (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper (to taste)
1 tbsp fresh chopped basil (NOT DRY)
4 c heavy cream (all half + half)
8 oz bag tortellini, dried
16 oz bag orecchiette, dried
OPTIONAL: Cooked bacon, mushrooms, onions or other meat/vegetable additions
Cook the pasta separately until it is on the hard side of al dente, as it will continue to cook in the colander. Strain and set aside.
Grate cheeses. Set aside ¼ of the fontina, gouda and cheddar, plus ½ of the Romano cheeses. You will use this for topping later.
Cut the Velveeta into one-inch cubes. Put in a large, thick-bottomed pot. Add heavy cream. Place over medium heat and start stirring while the cheese melts.
Add pepper, garlic powder and mustard, continue to stir.
Add any cheeses not set aside and fresh basil. Continue stirring.
When all the cheese has melted, turn up the heat and bring to the boil while stirring. Immediately turn to low and stir, making sure the cheese doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
After three minutes, add pasta to the mixture in the pan. Add any options like bacon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
NOTE: If preparing for later – let cool completely, cover and refrigerate.
Pour the pasta into an ovenproof dish or lasagna pan and place it on baking paper. Sprinkle leftover cheeses over the top.
Turn on the oven to roast. Place the pan under broilers for five minutes or until brown. Be careful not to burn it.
Let the pan rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Paris Wolfe is a lifestyle and culture reporter for Cleveland.com. She has a special interest in food and eating. You can reach her with restaurant and food news and story ideas on [email protected]. Here is a folder of her latest posts. Follow her on Instagram @pariswolfe.