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Mac & Cheese Madness

May 29, 2014

Junk in a Box was the post that publicly proclaimed my love for Kraft Mac & Cheese. What can I tell you, it was a childhood favorite. Eating it conjures up lovely memories of a more innocent time with my dad, and for that I make no appologies.

But something changed. I don’t know if it was Kraft, or if it was me. Maybe it was a little of both.

To make a long story short, the classic Kraft Mac & Cheese has yellow dye number five in it, and that’s bad news. They took it out of their kids line of novelty shaped pasta, and while the reformulated sauce is fine, the rectangular extruded pasta is not. So while the giant corporation’s attempt at improvement is appreciated, my family is sticking to the Trader Joe’s product… lumps and all.

You see, that’s the biggest drawback. The TJs cheese sauce packet doesn’t dissolve as well in milk and butter as its mass market cousin. This results in an unfortunately lumpy final product. However, I’ve discovered a labor intensive way to solve the problem.

Sometimes the answer is skipping the instructions on the box and defaulting to good old fashioned cooking techniques.

Trader Joe would have you cook the pasta, drain it, add two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of lowfat milk, the powdered cheese sauce packet, and stir off heat. The result is fine, but the cheese powder clumps up into tight balls of concentrated cheese and salt. While these are intense little flavor nuggets, they cause a reduction to the cheesiness of the pot as a whole.

If you are truly committed–and committed is a good choice of words–to a creamy result, I’ve got the solution:

– While the pasta is boiling, grab a cereal bowl and dump in the cheese packet
– Create a well in the center
– Pour in the milk
– Slowly, with a fork, begin to incorporate the cheese powder into the milk
– Work through any lumps
– Add more milk as needed

That’s it. Now you have a silky smooth cheese sauce. So when the pasta is done, simply drain, toss with butter and your bowl of cheesy velvet. Yes, you may lose a little bit of cheese sauce on the inside of the bowl. To maximize the cheesiness of the pasta, I’ll toss a little of the hot buttered noodles into the scraped out cheese bowl, just to try and melt those last bits of orange goo into the dish.

Is this a lot of effort to go through for an emergency weeknight dinner? Hell yeah. Do the kids appreciate the extra work? Hell no. Well, Young Master Fussy does, he likes it smooth. Naturally, that means his little sister likes it lumpy.

I can never win.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2014 10:40 am

    I too grew up on the old Kraft Mac n Cheese. I loved it as a child and hated it as an adult. About 10 years ago I baked my very first Mac N Cheese. I used a Martha Stewart recipe (tossing bread in melted butter for the topping, using Gruyere and a really sharp cheddar . . pinch of nutmeg and cayenne pepper . . ). Now, it is my GO-TO recipe for mac and cheese and nothing else will satisfy me. I cringe (I really do) every time I see those Velveeta liquid gold commercials. The only mac and cheese I had out that I remotely enjoyed was the one at Morton’s Steak House . . baked with crumbled bacon.

    But hey, I have my own guilty pleasure that I drive 40 miles out of town to buy, wearing funny nose glasses so nobody recognizes me. Cheez-its. And I really dig through the box to find the once with the burnt edges. No other cheese cracker will do. I hate the Cheese Nips. . IMPOSTERS.

    So, if you see me out and about wearing a baseball cap and funny nose glasses . . . don’t say hello. Just keep moving. We don’t know each other.

  2. May 29, 2014 11:00 am

    I do something similar. I dump the powder into a glass measuring cup, add milk (a bit more than suggested) and microwave it for a minute of two. The cheese melts well into the hot milk and pasta should be tossed with hot/warm sauce if it’s a hot dish anyway. I also throw in a handful of Cabot shredded cheddar which I always have on hand and always have pregrated in the fridge. I add the cheese right when I add the milk mixture and it melts down beautifully.

  3. May 29, 2014 11:20 am

    Chef Paul is right on when he says that the Martha Stewart recipe is the gold standard for baked mac and cheese. For stovetop, though, it doesn’t get any simpler or better than the Modernist Cuisine method – a bit of milk or even water (yes, really) and a couple of teaspoons of sodium citrate (close relative to citric acid) brought to a simmer, and then a few handfuls of whatever cheese you prefer whizzed in with an immersion blender. Perfectly smooth and perfectly cheesy, with no other flavors to get in the way. And it only takes as long as it takes you to cook your pasta. Definitely a must-try if you never have.

  4. May 29, 2014 11:22 am

    I NEVER put in as much milk as the box directions indicate- if I do that, I end up with soup.

  5. Kerosena permalink
    May 29, 2014 12:44 pm

    One more technique: while pasta is draining in colander, melt butter in the original pan, add milk and powder and whisk it til smooth.

    • May 29, 2014 1:18 pm

      Ooh. Okay, that’s better. Congratulations! You win the FLB for the day.

  6. May 29, 2014 2:18 pm

    s beat me to it with the sodium citrate tip. The key is that you can do this with ANY cheese–even a funky Gorgonzola that would normally turn into a oily mess if you heated it. Fussy, I know you hate chemicals, but if you use sodium chloride (AKA table salt) you should be easy with sodium citrate. It’s available from http://www.modernistpantry.com or on Amazon.

  7. May 29, 2014 4:10 pm

    I honestly can’t recall ever actually eating boxed mac ‘n’cheese. I’ll admit to loving melted Velveeta over macaroni as a child, but as soon as I learned to make bechamel sauce at 13 years old Velveeta never touched my macaroni again. I’m not sure if I have ever made mac ‘n’ cheese the same way twice, but who cares when you can add just about anything into the sauce depending on what sort of cheese you have put in there? Kielbasa and onions win the “hearty” prize with a nice fontina or monterey jack.

  8. Jenny permalink
    May 30, 2014 1:29 pm

    I think the sodium citrate tip might change my life. Already ordered! Until now, I have had good luck with Alton Brown’s stove top mac and cheese recipe, which relies on evaporated milk and eggs (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/stove-top-mac-n-cheese-recipe.html). The kids like it, and I have thrown it in a crock pot for pot luck type events and reheated it with a little extra milk to bring back the saucy consistency.

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