Chef Tess Presents: “Gourmet” Easy Mac
Confession time: I do not like macaroni and cheese.
Before you judge me too harshly, let me explain. I didn’t eat mac and cheese growing up; it was never a staple of my family’s diet. So, while the rest of you get a little nostalgic high from the bland gooey-ness of mac and cheese, I get nothing.
I understand the appeal in theory. I love pasta and I have a mild obsession with cheese, so combine the two and I should be golden, right? By all rights, I should love mac and cheese. But it’s just so inescapably and unapologetically bland. I can’t get over that.
So, today’s column is about making mac and cheese exciting. I’m assuming that even you card-carrying members of the mac and cheese fan club out there (in other words, basically everyone but me) get a little bored with just plain, old Easy Mac from time to time. So, in this piece, I’ll be experimenting with adding different spices and ingredients to Easy Mac. I have two goals: First, to help all of you all get ideas for how to make your macaroni and cheese more interesting, and second, to make mac and cheese interesting enough that I end up liking it.
To start, I bought a few containers of your standard Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Someday I will do a column about how to make full-fledged, incredibly indulgent macaroni and cheese (with ingredients like beer and bacon, this recipe screams CMC) but for now, I’m sticking with that kind of easy mac that everyone (except me) has: the kind that comes in a styrofoam bowl that you pop in your microwave at 3 a.m. when you’re really hungry but Mix Bowl has closed and you’re too lazy to drive to Santana’s. The extra ingredients, and you didn’t hear this from me, may or may not be easily available in our favorite dining hall.
Extra Ingredients: Diced Tomatoes and Green Onions
The result: Made me think of really, really cheap fake lasagna for bros. Not bad, but also not great. The tomatoes added a nice pop of flavor and crunch, but the cheese overwhelmed the flavor of the green onions almost completely, so, while they added texture, they didn’t add much else.
It also felt like I was trying to convince myself that I was being healthy, as though the tomatoes and onions might balance out the Easy Mac. While this is obviously healthier than just eating macaroni and cheese, it really doesn’t count on the health food spectrum.
Verdict: Needs more (and different) vegetables to add to the flavor.
Extra Ingredient: Tapatio, Then Other Salsas
The result: Tapatio adds a great, spicy kick to macaroni and cheese (surprise, surprise) and adds a totally different element to the dish. I actually liked it a fair amount. I ended up trying different versions with different salsas, and the best results came from salsas like Tapatio with heat but not a huge amount of flavor and vice versa (salsas with lots of flavor but not much heat). Salsas that were too chunky didn’t mix in very well, and salsas with unusual flavors (like fruity salsas) tasted really strange with the cheese. If what you want is extra heat but not that much change to the flavor, stick with the Tapatio option.
If you want spice but aren’t quite sure about the salsa option, you can also try adding some spices. Adding things like cayenne powder makes the dish spicy in an interesting way. Or you can add pepper flakes for a little burst of heat. You can also try garlic salt or lantana if you’re looking for a more complex, salty flavor.
Verdict: I’m still not sold on macaroni and cheese, but those of you who already like it might be intrigued.
Extra Ingredient: Bacon
The result: The bacon adds a delicious edge of salty crunch to the macaroni and cheese. It brought out some of the flavors in the cheese and disrupted the texture in an interesting way. I tried this two ways: For one I used bacon bits that I grabbed from the salad bar, and for the other I used real strips of bacon. I would recommend using real strips of bacon because the bacon bits disappeared into the cheese, whereas the bacon, especially still greasy from the pan, adds something perfect to the play, and you can see where it goes.
Verdict: If I weren’t stubbornly holding out, I would admit that macaroni and cheese with bacon might have won me over. Maybe. Okay, yes. This was delicious. (I still refuse to eat plain macaroni and cheese.)
Other things I considered adding: Chicken, broccoli, other types of cheese, spices, etc. If you have any questions about how to add something or whether or not you should, let me know in the comments below!