Life

Three Food Writers Go Head-To-Head-To-Head In ‘The Mac & Cheese Showdown’


A few weeks ago, Zach Johnston, Vince Mancini, and I faced off, to see who could make the best BLT. It was a fun little lark, a nice break in all of our days. Then something cool happened: people read the piece, people commented, people wanted to get involved. As it turns out, there’s a place in this vast internet landscape for three adults to bitterly insult one another’s cooking.

The results of that competition were plain: Vince’s BLT came out on top, Zach’s was second, and mine, which I believed to be a culinary masterpiece, placed last. Maybe it was the anchovy mayo, or the rustic bread, or the photos that looked like they were taken in a police booking room, but if ever there was a way to ensure that this one-off turned into a series, it was to make me the unanimous loser.

As the comments wound down on the last piece, once everyone had finally used up all the ways to mock my BLT, our commenters suggested that we tackle mac & cheese for round two. Better yet, they wanted to get in on the action. We set up a hashtag for online entries (#macandcheesechallenge) and were off to the races.

So have at it. Tear us up like Vince tearing a baguette to make totally unnecessary breadcrumbs, then tell us what to cook for round three — because this train isn’t stopping until I’m on top of the leaderboard.

— Steve Bramucci, Life Editor



VINCE’S MAC & CHEESE

Philosophy

I didn’t really grow up eating mac & cheese like a lot of people seemed to have, and to be honest I find the whole fancy mac and cheese craze a little alienating. Don’t get me wrong, I like it fine as a side dish when I’m eating barbecue or whatever, but I’m not sitting around my house craving mac and cheese like some infantilized diaper daddy. What are we going to make next? Pigs in a blanket? Ants on a log?

Some foods don’t need a fancy version. The fancier you make it, the less it’s mac and cheese. If you’re trying to class it up, why not just eat some pasta not meant for 6-year-olds? We rightfully began making fun of fettucini alfredo in the 80s but somehow mac and cheese gets a pass? I don’t get it. But fine, whatever, I’ll cook your cheesy member berries if it gets us to talking about food quicker. Anyway, most of my ancestors are from Italy, so my closest reference point here was baked ziti. If yours is Kraft mac & cheese this recipe is probably going to seem weird.

Also, no meat. For one, it’s cheating, for another, this dish already has 10 pounds of butter and cheese. I have the fattest fat tooth known to man, but if you think what mac and cheese needs is more animal fat, seek help.

Ingredients


Flour (for the bechemel)
Whole milk (for the bechemel)
A baguette (for the bread crumbs)
Flat-leaf parsley (for the bread crumbs)
Cavatappi
Chicken boullion (for the pasta water)
Cheese (Aged English Cheddar, Mexican melting cheese, Gruyere)
Jalapeños
Mustard, White Pepper (for the bechemel)
Butter (not pictured)
Beer (for the chef)

Pasta

I actually haven’t cooked store-bought pasta in a long time (fluffs scarf, thumbs nose at proles), but my pasta machine doesn’t have an extruder so I was limited to Whole Foods’ offerings. I prefer the bigger elbow pasta, but they only had the baby kind (who the f*ck wants tiny noodles?), so I got cavatappi instead. They’re basically a ringlet — kind of like two or three big macaroni noodles stuck together. Not exactly what I wanted, but fine.

Since I cook a lot of Mexican food, I also pretty much always have a giant container of Knorr bouillion powder in my kitchen (they make great grease storage containers when you’re done), and I usually put it in my cooking water when I make pasta. You’re gonna salt the water anyway, right? Might as well just make it broth. It doesn’t make a huge difference, I’m sure, just a hint of chickeny flavor, but why not, it’s easy. These were going to go under a broiler, so I cooked them a little under — boiled just short of the time suggestion for “al dente” on the box.

Béchamel/Cheese Sauce

I didn’t really know how people make the cheese sauce. I assumed it was basically the same as a béchamel. I started with healthy hunk of butter (five tablespoons?) and mixed enough flour in to make a roux. I added about a teaspoon and a half of mustard powder and an eighth teaspoon or so of white pepper (a little brightness, a little spice). Nothing too heavy, but I figure a little tang goes well with creamy cheese, a la In N Out animal fries.

Plus it turns a nice gold color like my underwear when I pee my pants.


Once that started smelling fragrant, I stirred in about four cups of whole milk. When that reduced enough to get some body, I added my cheese sauce cheese. I like my cheese sauce like I like my women — a little silky, a little sharp (I am sorry for this) — so I used Mexican quesadilla cheese for texture and aged English cheddar for sharpness. A heaping cup or so of each. I whisked that in, and hey, would you look at that, a nice creamy cheese sauce.

It’s smooth and creamy like my underwear when… you know what, never mind.

I mixed the cheese sauce with my cooked pasta, and added a couple of jalapeños. The jalapeños were sitting under the broiler while it was warming up, because I always like my jalapeños cooked and de-seeded (it’s a tiny bit of extra work, but trust me, your assh0le will thank you later).

And yes, jalapeños are a little non-tradish, but I need a little spice with all this cheese and dairy. I’m not six.


Before that goes under the broiler, I add a layer of gruyere. I figure if it’s good for french onion soup crusts, it’s good for mac & cheese crusts. I love gruyere. I admit, I actually started to come around to this assignment while I was buying the cheese. Buying cheese will do that to a man.

I stuck that under the broiler to crust (is there anything better than browned gruyere?) and made my bread crumbs.

Bread Crumbs


Whether to add a crunchy thing or not seems to be a polarizing element of mac & cheese, insofar as dickheads are arguing with each other about mac & cheese. Me, I like something crunchy to chew on because I’m not a little baby. So for my bread crumbs, I tossed a sweet baguette into the food processor to crumbify, then toasted them in a pan with (more) butter and chopped parsley. It’s important to put the parsley in during the toasting phase, if you do it after it can turn your bread crumbs soggy. No one likes soggy crumbs. Maybe your mom.

I could probably eat a whole bowl of these herbed bread crumbs with a spoon (add some pecorino and stuff that in a mushroom? you got yourself an hors d’ouvre, buddy!). If you like your mac and cheese totally smooth and creamy, whatever floats your boat, I guess, but you’re wrong.

The Finish

Basically, my mac’s got three or four levels of texture: creamy cheese sauce and pasta, chewy gruyere crust, and crispy crunchy bread crumbs. Sure, I could’ve added the bread crumbs before I put it under the broiler, but then your bread crumbs bond with your gruyere and you’ve got one texture layer instead of two. That was my thinking, anyway. I could’ve done a blind taste test, I suppose, but what am I, Rockafeller? I already got two pounds of cheese I have to eat before it goes bad.


Was it tasty? Oh you better believe it. Creamy, crusty, crunchy, with a mild hot pepper flavor and a slight twang. Almost tasty enough to make me feel bad about making fun of grown adults for eating mac & cheese. And I made enough for 10 people, so I got to eat like my own spoiled child for a whole week! …I’m so lonely. You’re my only friend, decadent cheese melange.

Steve on Vince’s Mac & Cheese:

Technique-wise, I have no huge problems with what you did here. I just feel you kind of self-fulfilled your prophecy about mac & cheese not being worth getting excited about, because this is so safe. You have starch in the roux, starch in the mac, and starch in the bread crumbs. I get it, bro, you like white flour. When I saw your entry and saw the beer on the ingredients page, I thought, “I’m so screwed, what a solid call.” You would have gotten some depth out of it. When I learned that you drank the beer while cooking, I felt safe again.

This dish is like someone you date in college: inoffensively attractive, generally nice, and perfectly pleasant. It’s all good until you realize that everything’s better with some rough edges and a dash of crazy.

Zach on Vince’s Mac & Cheese:

Vince: “Some foods don’t need a fancy version.” Then he goes on to make a mornay sauce (that’s what it’s called when you add gruyere to a béchamel, he said with his pinky finger extended). In my experience, if you read a menu and the mac & cheese is made with a mornay sauce, you know you have a “chef” on your hands who wants to charge you 20 bucks for a side dish.

Oh, you don’t like too much animal fat in your mac and cheese? Maybe don’t add a entire quart of whole milk. Also, slow down with all the different cheeses. Next time you go to a wine bar and order a cheese board, stick all the different pieces in your mouth at the same time and ask yourself how good it tastes. Choose a dope tasting cheese and let it shine.

Over all I give this a patented Padma roll of the eyes. Talking shit while making something that’s heavy, creamy, and show-0ff-y? You might be Phillip from last season.


ZACH’S MAC & CHEESE

Philosophy

The key to a great mac and cheese is keeping it simple. This is old-school comfort food. To me that means you can cook it with ease and, well, comfort. It also means it should be fast.

The ingredients

Really good, unsalted butter
Irish whiskey-infused cheddar
Conchiglie (shells)
Himalayan salt
Fresh ground nutmeg

Technique

I use DeCecco pasta because it has a heft to it that adds a nice fullness to the dish. My technique is simple and classic. I figure if it has worked for nearly a thousand years, why change it. First, bring a large pot of water to a boil, at least two liters. Add a large tablespoon of the salt — or in Al Pacino terms, a punch.

Add in your shells when the water is at a brisk boil. While the shells boil, do a rough grate on your cheese (about 4 ounces will do). Set aside. I generally used a whiskey infused cheddar. I do this because a lot of the “high-end” mac and cheese you’ll get out there will be made with a mornay and that sauce requires a splash of brandy to complete. Point being, you need that ever so slight hint of alcohol under the sharpness of the cheese to get a truly complex dish.

DeCecco generally takes closer to 12-15 minutes to get to al dente so you’re going to have plenty of time. The pasta comes in a 500g bag, so I generally use about 125g for two servings.

Now this is the crucial step. Before you drain your shells, use a ladle to scoop out at least 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Drain your pasta and put the pan back on the heat (medium to low will do). Add in a large knob of butter (at least a quarter stick). Let the butter start to melt and re-add the pasta. Start stirring, allowing the butter to start coating the pasta. Lose the heat, or hit it really low. Add your cheese, a few cranks from the nutmeg mill (don’t over do this), and the remaining pasta water and keep stirring. The nutmeg is going to add that extra punch of flavor that feels like a mornay, but doesn’t have the heaviness of it. The cheese will start to melt and emulsify with the butter and pasta water creating a silky smooth coating on the pasta.

You should end up with a silky and delicious shells and cheese on its own that will blow your mind in its simplicity and comfort.

The Chicken

I like adding a little protein in with my mac and cheese. You can really add whatever you want here — even some fried up Hebrew Nationals if that’s what tickles your fancy.


I made some pulled chicken thighs from a recipe I learned while living in Jalisco. It’s pretty simple. Remove the skin from the thighs, render the fat out of the skin in a large pan. Heavily salt and pepper your meat. Sear them off in the pan with the chicken fat. Set aside, pour off excess fat, add in your Jalisco mirepoix (celery, red bell pepper, carrot, fennel, green onion) and deglaze the pan with some sherry. Add the meat back in with some whole all spice, tellicherry peppercorns, whole cardamon seeds, dried chili, fresh lime, and a liter of veg broth. Simmer until the fluids are gone. Let the chicken chill a bit, the bone should lift right out. Use fork to shred it. I keep some in the fridge most of the time. It’s perfect for topping mac and cheese, nachos, or making tacos and enchiladas on the fly. It’s even good on a quick salad. The meat is super moist since all that broth and flavor have infused into the fatty meat.

Overall, it’s simple (read: no frills), comforting, delicious.

Vince on Zach’s Mac & Cheese:

I love me some pulled chicken, but why would you waste it on mac and cheese? Add some of your braising liquid and throw that in a taco. Then eat the mac and cheese on the side. I dunno, meaty mac and cheese seems like both overkill and self-defeating to me. I could understand shellfish, since lobster, shrimp, crab, etc are delicate and go nice with butter and cream, but all the dairy is just going to drown all those nice chicken spices. I think maybe the kosher Jews have it right on this one. And putting hot dogs in there sounds downright disgusting. Also, I like a little crunch. You went to all that effort with no crunchy element? Simplicity my ass. By the way, I like how both Steve and Zach shit on the flour in my bechemel. What do you think the pasta water has in it, dummy?

And you cooked with something called a “gram?” This is communism and I won’t stand for it.

Steve on Zach’s Mac & Cheese:

I have to give it to you, the pulled chicken is an inspired choice. Since Vince is probably going to rant about the same thing in my recipe let me address it here: protein and starch is a win — even if you do load it with cheese. His anti-meat points aren’t landing with me at all. Nutmeg was a great call too. I feel like I got caught slipping on that.

Here’s where I’ll hammer you though: No green element? No crunch? You had scallions right there in your braising pot! I think this looks pretty damn good and very classic, but there doesn’t seem to be much brightness. A few herbs would have gone a long way.


STEVE’S MAC & CHEESE

Philosophy

After unanimously losing our last recipe battle on two counts: 1) the dish itself, and 2) my vertigo inducing photos, I resolved to do better across the board. So my basic philosophy was: “Don’t lose to these jerks again.” Especially, because I absolutely love mac & cheese. My first iconic food memory is a box of Kraft that a friend and I made at my house after a day of basketball in the driveway. It turned out dead solid perfect — we must have spilled some noodles and the result was that it was a little too cheesy. I still remember exactly how it hit these sharp notes in the back corners of my mouth, right where my salivary glands are.

Anyway, it was the last box and we were so ravenous that as soon as we realized how good it was, we went straight into the pot and ate with our hands, wrestling to shovel in as much as possible before the other guy got any. One of my best ten meals ever, right there.

Fittingly, I was visiting my parent’s home in Portland when I prepped this meal. The Portland-model of food has been to take classic fatty comfort foods and chef the hell out of them. So that’s what I tried to do, using a basic Hamburger Helper Mac & Cheese as my template.

Ingredients

I went shopping for this dish at one of Portland’s insanely expensive snobby food marts, where they sell a pound of pasta for $10. I didn’t go quite that far, but I did spend waaaaaaay too much money to put together mac & cheese. What you see in the image above is pretty much everything I used. It might seem like a lot of ingredients, but when you drill down you only have five notes, which are being hit from a variety of angles:

Onion-ish things: yellow onions, scallions, chives, elephant garlic, and leeks.

Chili-ish things: Pickled Calabrian peppers and raw red peppers.

Cheese: Old Amsterdam, Aged English Cheddar, and Jarlsberg. Plus a few wafers of cheddar/gorgonzola hybrid. And… CHEESE POWDER. That’s right, I unabashedly used it. It’s a hipster brand but, essentially, it tastes like it comes from a Kraft packet. I have it in my kitchen in Cali and use it often on cheese dishes. For me it just conjures that sense memory mentioned above.

Crunchy things: carrots, apple.

Dairy: milk, browned butter. I know that I used browned butter last time, but… have you tasted browned butter? It’s a miracle. It’s so nutty.

Pasta

The day before my flight to Portland, I bought some huge-ass shells that I know I love working with. These things are massive and just generally fun and your other ingredients get caught inside of them. But I didn’t have room in the carry-on and couldn’t find those at the shop I went to, so I went with an imported shell that would do a good job at staying al dente.

Whenever I do a pasta like this, in which the focus is on savory, I cook the noodles in bone broth. That’s an expensive way to go, but I love how enriched the noodles feel and taste.

Meat and veggies

I cooked all the veggies together with the ground beef (which gave me sticker shock but was certainly the best ground beef I’ve ever cooked with… this is a tax write-off, right?). For seasoning, I added the Calabrian pickled peppers and some salt, pepper, white pepper, and thyme.

Cheese

This is pretty straightforward. I used some bone broth, whole milk, and my four cheeses for the sauce. Plus the powder. I left the pasta more than al dente, so that it could cook further when I mixed the pasta and sauce together. I like to give the flavors time to marry and also wanted the sauce to thicken a little.


A few things you might notice:

  1. The lighting in both my apartment and at my parent’s house is horrible. Basically, I live in the dark like some sort of bridge troll. I’m hiring a professional photographer for round three.
  2. I put some peas in at some point, because they go together well with carrots. Also, I was hitchhiking through San Francisco when I was 19 and stopped in at a diner to eat. It was raining and I was lugging a backpack and the waitress gave me a free cheese pasta with peas. She was stunning, and she offered it with no provocation, which made me feel like Jack Kerouac. So I use peas in my mac a lot.
  3. I didn’t use the whole pound of beef. I used about 1/2 pound (for 1.5 lbs of noodles). I really wanted to keep this mostly a mac & cheese. First, because that’s the better-tasting ratio, and second, because I got disqualified last time for adding an egg and I’m not trying to get penalized by someone who’s been commenting on Filmdrunk since 2007.

The Dish

I broiled my mac with an extra layer of cheese and the red peppers, then cut chives, scallions, and a few little apple matchsticks on top. The apple is crucial and I think the apple doubters (namely Vince, on Instagram) are wrong. Here’s why: You have to brighten the palate after all those umami flavors. You have to lighten things up. Plus a little crunch doesn’t hurt. Between the carrots, which were cooked down but still firm, and the apple, plus the cheese crust, I had some nice textural elements.

So how did it taste? My mom lost her mind, but she’s my mom, so I won’t upload her video testimonial. I thought it was delicious — hitting all the sense-memory, comfort food notes, without being 1) too simple to bother over or 2) a gut-bomb. There was still some lightness and nuance, which is what my palate prefers these days. The spice level was right on and there were layered flavors that made it worth going back for bite after bite.

My photos are still shitty, but I’m standing by this one. If I get last again, I’m going to start banning commenters.

Zach on Steve’s Mac & Cheese:

I love me some hamburger helper. And this is the 20 dollar version. It reminds me of getting hammered on Henney when I was 19 and hanging out with art students. And I (obviously) agree that meat is an essential element to a jacking up your mac (Yes, Vince, even hot dogs, you elitist). My biggest concern is that this just seems so involved. It looks and surely tasted good, and was what was advertised — a high falutin’ mac and cheese. I’d just drop some of the heavier components like the milk (it’s just not necessary, ever). And I’d again stick with one great cheese and let it shine.

I concede that my mac was bare bones. But it’s comfort food. No one is thinking about chiffonade and garnish when you want some nourishing comfort after a hard day. And I would like to posit that we don’t always have to make it about that. I say, know your dish and what it needs to be awesome.

I give this one a Padma nod of approval, but only so I can get on to the next plate before I pass out.

Vince on Steve’s Mac & Cheese:

Yes, you do have to brighten the palate after you make a mac and cheese with a half pound of damn beef in it. This is either a queso or a beef stroganoff, I can’t decide which. Hey, Steve, do you ever make anything that doesn’t have 17 unnecessary ingredients in it? Carrots? If I bite into mac and cheese and I get a semi-crunchy carrot in it that mac’s going out the window. This manages to be simultaneously too rich and too many flavors. I call this dish “beef strokin’ off.”

Keep the pasta and Calabrian pickled chilis (those actually sound good), dump everything else. I give this one Padma’s dismissive wanking motion.


MAC & CHEESE FROM OUR COMMENTERS

Schnitzel Bob

Adam Greer

Jake Howell

Declare your winners in the comments, and let us know which dish you want us to tackle next!
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