Somewhere along the line, most grownups lose their taste for SpaghettiOs, Cap’n Crunch and Pop Rocks. Yet other foods last a lifetime.
That’s precisely the appeal of macaroni and cheese, a fun food for children to pick at while also giving adults a chance to experience some of that warm and fuzzy feeling that can come with certain dishes.
“It’s the ultimate comfort food,” said Nick Morse, who with his wife, Jackie, owns MACS Macaroni and Cheese Shop restaurants in Wisconsin Dells and Sun Prairie. “It’s one of those foods that just moves along with you your entire life.”
It’s moving along in myriad ways these days. While the blue box from Kraft remains omnipresent, home cooks and restaurant chefs are finding unique ways to make it that please family, friends and customers.
Morse isn’t the only restaurateur putting mac and cheese on the menu, it has popped up on menus all over the area. It’s served at the Old Fashioned, Vintage Brewing Co., the Great Dane and Mickey’s Tavern, among others. It’s a Friday lunch special at Bistro 101 in Mount Horeb. It’s on the menu of the three Food Fight Group diners: the Bassett Street Brunch Club, Monty’s Blue Plate and Hubbard Avenue Diner. The Coopers Tavern has two mac and cheese dishes, with lobster and pork belly.
Mac and cheese is also at higher-end spots. At Graze, it’s made with Hook’s 10-year cheddar; the Johnny Delmonico’s lunch menu includes a lobster macaroni and cheese. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s sold at the concession stand for Madison Mallards games. Mac and cheese wedges or bites are also popping up as appetizers in spots such as the Kollege Klub, Vintage or Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, and mac and cheese pizza put Ian’s on the map long ago.
In short, macaroni and cheese is everywhere.
“It’s like going back to ‘simple is best,’ ” said Sara Hill, manager of training and education for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “It’s taking simple but making it really awesome.”
The WMMB has a website, All Things Mac and Cheese, dedicated to the dish. It features 150 recipes. It began as a blog post to celebrate National Cheese Lovers Day four years ago and evolved into a permanent site.
“We’ve seen the popularity of comfort foods growing in all categories, like with grilled cheese sandwiches,” said Heather Porter Engwall, spokeswoman for the WMMB. “People like taking things they are familiar with and making a fancy version of it.”
Start with the sauce
Mac and cheese can get fancy, but Hill says once you get the knack of making the cheese sauce, it becomes a simple dish to make on the stovetop or in the oven. A basic white sauce, or a béchamel sauce, is the key and that requires mastering the task of stirring milk into a roux of butter and flour. From there cheese is added, making it a Mornay sauce. A wide variety of cheeses work, Hill said.
American cheese works well, Hill said, as do younger cheddars, fontina, gouda or Monterey Jack. The BellaVitano Parmesan-style cheeses come in a wide range of flavors, so that’s a way to add some variety, Hill said. A cheese spread folds in easily, she said, and even adding something sharp like a blue cheese can work almost as a spice.
Aged cheddars don’t melt well, and work better as a topping or a way to add a little bite of flavor. The key, Hill said, is to mix it up.
“Instead of having, say, a pound of gouda, have two different kinds of cheese or four different kinds of cheese,” she said.
Mixing it up
At MACS, the base sauce is a blend of American, cheddar and mozzarella. From there, depending on the dishes, other cheeses are added – including pepper jack, provolone, blue or even more American and cheddar.
“We’ve played around with different profiles, which cheeses go best with different proteins, vegetable or sauces,” Morse said. “If you’re doing it for yourself, there’s no reason to box yourself in to one specific cheese.”
Timing is big, too, Hill said. She suggests making it with what seems to be too much sauce; that way by the time it is served, it will be just right.
“You want a creamy cream sauce,” she said. “The biggest problem is people don’t have enough sauce. You even want it so it looks a little runny because the pasta is going to absorb the sauce. I’d rather have it too runny than the other way around.”
At MACS, staff tries to get the sauce just right because it’s served right after it comes out of the oven, Morse said. Too thick, and it doesn’t seem cheesy enough. Too thin, and it’s less appealing to diners.
Leftovers definitely will be too thick but that’s not a problem, Hill said.
“Everything tastes better the next day, and you can just reconstitute it with a little milk,” she said.
Choosing the right pasta makes a difference, too. At MACS, elbow macaroni was definitely going to be the choice, and it had to be the right kind.
“We painstakingly went through a lot of noodle samples,” Morse said. “We knew we wanted elbow macaroni, and we knew we wanted it ribbed. It helps hold the cheese.”
There are good choices beyond elbow macaroni for home cooks, said Hill, who also suggests cavatappi, orecchiete and rotini — anything that will hold the sauce.
Mac and cheese base
Sometimes, and increasingly more often, the mac and cheese is just a base. From there, the dish can go any number of ways. At MACS, popular items are the Jalapeno Popper Mac, which includes pepper jack and mozzarella cheeses, jalapenos, bacon and cream cheese, and the Hangover Mac, which includes three cheeses, bacon, a sliced hot dog, green pepper, sautéed onions and mushrooms, hash browns and Sriracha sauce. In all, there are 12 to choose from at MACS, as well as specials that vary.
“We looked at it the way people look at pizza — different toppings and all that,” he said. “We knew mac and cheese would make a good base.”
Hill recently was at an event in which she led a team-building exercise. She taught the group to make a cheese sauce, and then they had to make a mac and cheese from a market basket of ingredients to add flourishes to the dish.
“It’s really about what you want to put in it because once you have that wonderful creamy sauce you can do just about anything,” she said.
Families could also do the same thing with a meal, she said, much like they might do with tacos.
Even so, it’s tough to pull kids from their habits. Though Morse owns a restaurant whose mission is to mix up macaroni and cheese, he and his wife will still mix it up from a familiar blue box for their 2-year-old son.
“It’s still my son’s favorite mac and cheese,” he said. “Kids will be kids.”