One of the more polarizing issues I’ve encountered this fall is which brand of boxed macaroni and cheese is superior. It all started at Bivouac, when the Junior Guides (JGs) would argue about mac and cheese preferences. One other JG and I agreed that Kraft Mac & Cheese—the orange kind—was the best. The other JGs felt that Annie’s White Cheddar shells were superior. The argument continued each time we were together and was never settled because the only mac and cheese at Bivouac was Annie’s orange shells—not even the subject of our argument.
During my childhood, my mom rarely made mac and cheese. It was reserved only for special occasions, such as on Halloween as a quick, easy pre-trick-or-treat “dinner” before my brother and I gorged ourselves on candy. My grandmother, though, often cooked me whatever I wanted when I would visit her. I begged for Kraft enough as a child that it’s still the first thing she offers me for lunch.
I didn’t have Annie’s white shells until I was 10. My friend, who liked her macaroni soupy, made it with me. The flavor of the noodles, floating over a sea of lukewarm milk vaguely reminiscent of cheese, was so bland that it tasted like the color white. I can’t tolerate anyone who likes macaroni and cheese soup.
I’m not saying my taste in macaroni is perfect. Some people like a creamy sauce and add butter, some like the sauce soupy (ugh), and some (me) like it clumpy.
I like to make instant macaroni with as little milk as possible so that the powder sticks to the noodles, leaving a crunchy shell of cheese-powder on them. I know, I’m disgusting, but it’s the only way to eat it.
Others’ macaroni preferences shock me. But one thing everyone agrees on is that real macaroni and cheese, the kind that’s baked in an oven, is always good. To enter this discussion of macaroni varieties, let me explain how I make “fake” macaroni (read: Kraft) more legit.
First, instead of milk or butter, I add Greek yogurt to the cheese powder to make the sauce richer, along with a dash of garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Now, if I’m making mac and cheese with a friend and I can’t eat my clumpy macaroni, I’ll make it this way.
Another more “legit” macaroni recipe I have in my arsenal is actually my mom’s. She would make it after winter swim practices, and she taught me how to make it. I cook noodles to below al dente, so they’re still a little crisp, and then I make a cheese sauce using whatever I have on hand. Recently, I made it with gruyere, fontina, Colby, and cheddar before spreading bacon and breadcrumbs over the top. It’s a little better than my clumpy preferences.
No matter how much I love cooking at home, the most perfect macaroni I have ever had was in a random hotel restaurant. It was a frigid day in upstate New York, where my mom and I were visiting colleges last March. We stayed at a stuffy, old hotel that happened to have the least sketchy restaurant in town. I had low expectations for the menu, anticipating classic American fare: heavy burgers with fries, Cobb salads, some sort of chicken. It’s the kind of place to have Pepsi but no Coke: not terrible, but definitely not good.
My mom and I were in a bad mood. We’d been driving all day, I hadn’t liked the college we saw, and we were hungry. I opened the menu, preparing myself for my “medium rare” burger to be cooked “well done.”
Then I saw it: duck truffle macaroni and cheese.
It couldn’t be. It was everything I wanted. If they could pull off all of those rich flavors in one dish, I was sold; I might even consider applying to that college!
It came in a simple metal dish. I crossed my fingers. Duck is oilier than chicken and much richer, too. Truffle is decadent, and cheese is wonderful. The first bite was a colorful explosion as the three flavors married each other, and I noted that everything was present: the subtle hint of truffle under the thick bite of duck, all cloaked in cheese. Each ingredient went with the next, and chewing pulled certain flavors into the spotlight before blending them back together. It was rapturous.
I understand why people are picky about macaroni. It’s an early taste for many children, and everyone likes specific things. Different kinds of mac and cheese mean different things to me. Kraft tastes like trick-or-treating; “real” mac and cheese tastes like a chlorine green, warm kitchen; and the non-sentimental, “fancy” mac and cheese tastes like a welcome refuge from the stressful process that is applying to college.