CLEVELAND, Ohio – After eating my way through 18 interpretations of mac ‘n’ cheese at the Mac ‘N’ Cheese Throwdown this month, I know there’s not one perfect macaroni and cheese recipe. There are many. Different people like different things, and different moods inspire different cravings.
RELATED: Mac ‘N’ Cheese Throwdown declares winners, raises money for W.A.G.S. 4 Kids – cleveland.com
Given a choice, I’m a mac ‘n’ cheese snob, seeking out unusual cheese blends and toppings. But I’ll eat bright orange Kraft macaroni and cheese, though not because I find it particularly good. It’s familiar from my childhood and dredges up good memories. That, I guess, makes it a comfort food.
Great grown-up mac ‘n’ cheese is, though, the ultimate comfort food … a creamy combination of carbs, cheese and savory additions. And I can always use more comfort.
While I was judging mac ‘n’ cheese creations at the Throwdown, a sold-out fundraiser for Working Animals Giving Service for Kids (W.A.G.S. 4 Kids), a crowd filled two rooms at The Madison event center in Cleveland. They were gathering information about their faves as well.
I couldn’t let all that tasting research go to waste (though it went to waist, lol), so I talked to several experts for advice on making the comfiest version of the dish.
Pink Piggy BBQ, a Macedona-based food truck and catering company, made the judges’ favorite modern mac ‘n’ cheese. “Modern” simply meant makers could add more than just macaroni and cheese. Their version was a brisket, burnt-end mac ‘n’ cheese.
“Everything we cook 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 a minimum three-year aged cheddar. Parmesan and Asiago add an extra special something, and we think bring out the garlic more,” she said.
“I like to showcase my low and slow wood-fired smoked foods with that scrumptious mac and cheese. Pink Piggy BBQ ‘Oinker’ Rub on burnt ends, pulled pork and pulled chicken make an awesome loaded mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Shahriari’s choice of pasta is cavatappi.
“The curly edges soak up the cheese when we add the sauce. Plus, it holds up to the smoked goodness on top,” she said.
For home cooks, “Start with simple and yummy, then add your flair. Whether you’re a yellow ‘Mac’er’ or like something more edgy try that 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 did so well with customers that he made it permanent. This year the chef tweaked it a little further. Results surprised him.
“I knew our recipe was special,” he said, “but I never expected to be the third best mac ‘n’ cheese at the Throwdown. After that milestone, we have decided to add our ‘Birria mac ‘n’ cheese’ to the daily menu.”
Birria is a Mexican-style braised beef that has been trending in taco and quesadilla fillings.
“I wanted to do a Latin twist on mac ‘n’ cheese,” Melendez said. “I guess it worked. I like that it has different layers of flavors, from the poblano cheese sauce made from scratch, building with the flavors from charred poblanos, garlic, onion powder, Monterrey-pepper jack cheese as well as the Birria with hints of cinnamon, guajillo peppers, chipotle and finishing with chopped cilantro and onions. It’s just an explosion of flavors that remind you of Mexico in every bite.”
The recipe came from experimenting in the kitchen.
“I am Puerto Rican, and my wife, Chef Cristina, is Mexican,” he says. “We have been offering Birria tacos with Christina’s Birria recipe for about two years. We’ve been told it is one of the best Birria people have had in Greater Cleveland. With that, we started to experiment 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 sticks well.
“I focused on the flavor profile, though 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 great flavor profile.”
The complete recipe, though, is secret. She recommends trial and error to develop a recipe. “Mac ‘n’ cheese is not really a Latin forte. However, I looked into original baked mac ‘n’ cheese recipes online, and from there I knew the foundation and basics,” she said. “Then we started experimenting with substitutes and flavors and kept trying until we got it. Just keep working on your recipe until you are happy with it and see a smile in others when they try it.”
It only makes sense to add a cheese monger 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 the Alton Brown baked mac ‘n’ cheese as well as a no-boil mac ‘n’ cheese from the New York Times,” she said. “The no-boil recipe includes puréed cottage cheese and cream as well as cheddar for a lovely texture that you can get without boiling 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, pre-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 executive director of W.A.G.S 4 Kids, has her own interpretation of mac ‘n’ cheese.
“My recipes has been passed from my grandma Jeanne Goodman to my mom Wendy Crann and now to me,” she said. “I have 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 Velveeta
4 oz Fontina, grated
4 oz smoked gouda, grated
8 oz sharp Cheddar, grated
2 oz pecorino Romano, grated finely
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 tsp black pepper (to taste)
1 tbsp freshly chopped basil (NOT DRY)
4 c heavy cream (alt half + half)
8 oz bag tortellini, dried
16 oz bag orecchiette, dried
OPTIONAL: Cooked bacon, mushrooms, onions or other meat/vegetable add-ins
Cook pasta separately until 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 fontina, gouda and cheddar, plus ½ Romano cheeses. You will use this for topping later.
Cut Velveeta into one-inch cubes. Place in large, heavy-bottom saucepan. Add heavy cream. Place over medium heat and begin to stir as cheese melts.
Add pepper, garlic powder and mustard, continuing to stir.
Add all cheeses not set aside and fresh basil. Continue to stir.
When all cheese has melted, turn heat to high and bring to a boil, while stirring. Immediately turn to low and stir, making sure cheese doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
After three minutes add pasta to the mixture in the pot. Add any options like bacon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
NOTE: If preparing for later – let it cool completely, cover and refrigerate.
Pour pasta into casserole dish or lasagna pan and place on cookie sheet. Sprinkle leftover cheeses over top.
Turn oven to broil. Place pan under broiler for five minutes or until brown. Watch so it doesn’t burn.
Let casserole rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Paris Wolfe is a life and culture reporter for Cleveland.com. She has a special interest in food and dining. You can reach her with restaurant and food news and story ideas at email@example.com. Here’s a directory of her latest posts. Follow her on Instagram @pariswolfe.
News Source: https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/2023/03/macaroni-and-cheese-experts-reveal-how-to-make-an-exceptionally-tasty-dish.html?outputType=amp