Experts reveal how to make an exceptionally tasty dish
CLEVELAND, Ohio — After munching through 18 interpretations of mac ‘n’ cheese at this month’s Mac ‘N’ Cheese Throwdown, I know there’s no perfect macaroni and cheese recipe. There are many. Different people like different things, and different moods evoke different cravings.
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When given a choice, I’m a mac ‘n’ cheese snob and look for unusual cheese blends and toppings. But I’m going to eat bright orange Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, not because I particularly like it. It is known from my childhood and brings back good memories. That makes it, I think, a comfort food.
However, big adult mac ‘n’ cheese is the ultimate comfort food… a creamy combination of carbs, cheese and savory additives. And I could always use more comfort.
While I was judging mac ‘n’ cheese creations at Throwdown, a sold-out fundraiser for Working Animals Giving Service for Kids (WAGS 4 Kids), a crowd filled two rooms at The Madison event center in Cleveland. They also collected information about their favorites.
I couldn’t let all that tasting research go to waste (although it did fit the waist lol), so I consulted several experts for advice on how to make the most convenient version of the dish.
Pink Piggy BBQ, a Macedonia-based food truck and catering company, made the judges’ favorite modern mac ‘n’ cheese. “Modern” simply meant that manufacturers could add more than just macaroni and cheese. Her version was a brisket, mac ‘n’ cheese with a burnt end.
“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 twist. We use aged white cheddar, lots of cream and garlic with our favorite spicy pepper in the mix.”
“It has to be a cheddar at least three years old. Parmesan and asiago add a special something, and we think the garlic shines more,” she said.
“I love showcasing my slow and slow wood-fired dishes with this delicious macaroni and cheese. Pink Piggy BBQ ‘Oinker’ Rub on Burned Ends, Pulled Pork and Pulled Chicken make an awesome loaded mac ‘n’ cheese.”
Shahriari’s choice of pasta is cavatappi.
“The scalloped edges will soak up the cheese as we add the sauce. Plus, it stands up to the smoked goodness on top,” she said.
For home cooks: “Start with simple and delicious, then add your flair. Whether you’re a yellow ‘Mac’er, or like something a little fancier, try this new cheese (slowly). Love life and have fun.”
When Jose Melendez, owner of Twisted Taino in Parma, recently put mac ‘n’ cheese on the menu for a special event, it was so well received by customers that he made it permanent. This year the chef has tweaked it a little further. The results surprised him.
“I knew our recipe was special,” he said, “but I never expected to be the third best mac ‘n’ cheese at Throwdown. After this milestone we decided to add our ‘Birria Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ to the daily menu.”
Birria is a Mexican-style braised beef that’s trending in taco and quesadilla fillings.
“I wanted to put a Latin twist on mac ‘n’ cheese,” Melendez said. “I think it worked. I like that it has different layers of flavor, from the homemade poblano cheese sauce, to the flavors of charred poblanos, garlic, onion powder, Monterrey pepper jack cheese, to the birria with hints of cinnamon, guajillo peppers, and chipotle finish with chopped coriander and onions. It’s just an explosion of flavors that remind you of Mexico in every bite.”
The recipe came about while experimenting in the kitchen.
“I’m from Puerto Rico and my wife, Boss Cristina, is Mexican,” he says. “We’ve been offering birria tacos using Christina’s birria recipe for about two years. We’re told it’s one of the best birrias the people of Greater Cleveland have had. With that, we started experimenting with flavors and making sure we had the perfect cheese sauce for the mix.”
Christina uses elbow or farfalle molds because the cheese sauce sticks well.
“I focused on the flavor profile, although a well-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 they also add a great flavor profile.”
However, the full recipe is secret. She recommends trial and error to develop a recipe. “Mac ‘n’ cheese isn’t really a Latin American strength. However, I looked up original baked mac ‘n’ cheese recipes online and from there I knew the basics and the 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 others smile when they try it.”
It only makes sense to add a cheesemonger to a Mac ‘n’ Cheese story. Kandice Marchant of the Marchant Manor Cheese Shop in Cleveland Heights is a fan of the popular dish.
“I make the Alton Brown baked mac ‘n’ cheese and a no-boil mac ‘n’ cheese from The New York Times,” she said. “The no-boil recipe includes pureed cottage cheese and cream, plus cheddar for a nice texture you get without cooking the pasta.”
Of course, she recommends Marchant Manor’s Hathaway cottage cheese because it uses rich Guernsey cream and crème fraiche.
For a fancy version, Marchant recommends (and sells) sharp cheddar, parmesan, and blue cheese. And for an everyday version, she suggests cheddar and provolone. Her advice to aspiring connoisseurs is: “Grate your own cheese. Packaged, pre-shredded cheese contains cornstarch and anti-caking agents that can prevent smooth melting.”
It’s no surprise that Sera Nelson, who coordinates Throwdown and is CEO of WAGS 4 Kids, has her own take on mac ‘n’ cheese.
“My recipes were passed down from my grandma, 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 is no place like home.”
Sera Nelson’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese
8 ounces of Velveeta
4 oz Fontina, grated
4 ounces smoked gouda, grated
8 ounces of sharp cheddar, grated
2 ounces 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 cream (alternatively half + half)
8 oz bag of dried tortellini
16 oz bag orecchiette, dried
OPTIONAL: Cooked bacon, mushrooms, onions or other meat/vegetable additives
Cook pasta separately until al dente on the hard side, as it will continue to cook in the colander. Strain and set aside.
Rasp cheese. Set aside ¼ Fontina, Gouda and Cheddar and ½ Romano cheese. You will use this later for brushing.
Cut Velveeta into 1 inch cubes. Place in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add cream. Heat over medium heat and stir while the cheese melts.
Add the pepper, garlic powder and mustard and continue to stir.
Add any cheeses not set aside and fresh basil. Keep stirring.
When all the cheese has melted, turn the heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring. Immediately reduce to low and stir, being careful not to let the cheese stick to the bottom of the pan.
After three minutes, add the noodles to the mixture in the pot. Add any options like bacon. Season with salt and pepper.
NOTE: If preparing for later, let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate.
Pour the pasta into a casserole dish or lasagna pan and place on a baking sheet. Scatter leftover cheese on top.
Turn oven to grill. Place the pan under the grill for five minutes or until browned. Be careful not to burn it.
Let the 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 food. You can reach them with restaurant and food news and story ideas at [email protected]. Here is a directory of their most recent posts. Follow her on Instagram @pariswolfe.