Battle of the Mac ‘n’ Cheese
Recently, I was moseying through the grocery store, cradling the organic pink lady apples to which I had just treated myself, when my eye feel upon this long-forgotten childhood staple:
Smile? Sure, why not?? Looking at that macaroni smile, I felt so happy that the box jumped off the shelf and into my cart. With mac ‘n’ cheez selling $10 for 10 boxes, it was hard to hold back. Why would I pay $1 for 1.5 pink lady apples when I could buy a whole dinner of mac ‘n’ cheez? (And I DO mean “cheeZ”.) Cheap food in America, my dear reader. (Edited to add: Just to be clear, the last few sentences are dripping with sarcasm. DRIPPING. )
(Peter wanted me to get this box instead, but …
… nah. Even if it does have “Double the Calcium” … again, dripping. )
Once the telltale blue box was in my cart, the wheels in my head started to turn. What if I conducted a taste test of several mac and cheeses, including a homemade recipe? Yes!
Two more boxes of mac and cheese found their way into my cart. I decided that instead of preparing all the mac and cheeses at once, as Peter would (ask him about his infamous 17 vanilla extracts taste test experiment), I would prepare them over several days. First up:
Kraft mac and cheez, plain and simple. I prepared this macaroni and cheez the traditional way, with liberal amounts of butter and milk. While the finished product was creamy and somewhat satisfying, the neon orange “cheese” was off putting. I guess eating neon noodles didn’t bother me as much when I was a young ‘un. In addition, the cheez was much too salty, causing me to gulp glass after glass of water in an attempt to wash it down. Overall, I’d give Kraft mac ‘n’ cheez a 3 out of 10.
How about Amy’s brand frozen mac and cheese? Surely with a box like this, we’ve got a healthier option?
With 48% of daily saturated fat and 25% of sodium, perhaps not. At least the ingredient list is short and contains recognizable ingredients:
After microwaving, I mixed the pasta with green beans to bulk up the small portion and sprinkled it with slivered almonds for some crunch:
The Amy’s mac and cheese is heartier than the Kraft version; however, the cheese is salty and grainy in texture. I’d give this version a 5 out of 10. It’s a reasonable option for someone short on time, but perhaps we can do better:
When I bought this Annie’s mac and cheese dinner, I didn’t realize it was a gluten-free version. Some gluten-free pastas are delicious and have a texture close to regular pasta – sadly, this rice-based pasta was not one of those. I mixed this mac and cheese with steamed frozen veggies for even more bulk:
On the plus side, the cheese was smooth and creamy. This dish is lower in saturated fat (10% of daily value); but, 28% of daily sodium is still high. Each serving also contains only 8 grams of protein (the Amy’s version had 16 grams and the Kraft version had 10 grams), so I would add more protein (chicken, tofu, beans) to stay full longer. I’d give this Annie’s macaroni and cheese a 6 out of 10.
Can we improve on this version? I think it’s time to break out some homemade mac ‘n’ cheese!
Perfect 10 Mac ‘n’ Cheese
8 oz. short pasta (I used whole grain rotini)
2 Tbsp butter or tub margarine
2 Tbsp flour
1 cup skim milk
8 oz. cheddar cheese, shredded
8 oz. sour cream (low fat if desired)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
Cook pasta according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the THIH version of a Béchamel sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat, add flour, and whisk continuously for 8-10 minutes or until the sauce is light brown (if you’re low on time, cook the sauce for 2-3 minutes instead; however, the flavor of the final mac and cheese will not be as rich). Add milk slowly, whisking constantly. Cook on low for about 5 minutes or until the sauce is thickened. Stir in nutmeg. Set aside.
Mix pasta, sauce, the two cheese, and sour cream in a large bowl.
Let’s take a closer look at those beautiful cheddar cheese curls:
Scoop the pasta into a 9″x13″ baking dish and sprinkle panko breadcrumbs on top. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. You can broil the dish for 1-2 minutes to finish browning the breadcrumbs (or to finish black(en)ing the breadcrumbs, as I did).
Topped with fresh-ground black pepper and served with green beans and toasted almonds:
Add some cooked chicken or sausage (like I did) for some extra protein. A small portion of this creamy and flavorful dish was enough to satisfy my macaroni and cheese craving. Enjoy your perfect 10 mac ‘n’ cheese!
Q: Do you like macaroni and cheese? How do you like the boxed versions? Have you ever made your own?
P.S. Congratulations to Whitney and her new husband, Dave! Your wedding was beautiful! Best wishes to you both, now and in the future 🙂
that mac n cheese does look perfect. i’m very lazy so i just do the box thing – annie’s shells and cheese got me through college!
I bet the Scooby one would have been 11
I cannot believe you put that stuff into your healthy body! Let alone believe because it is “fortified with calcium” that the scientifically engineered addition of it would be “good for you”. I do understand the flavours of childhood calling and the comfort they bring, for sure. In my day = have I told you this? The coolest kid on the block was the one with the most Kraft Salad Dressings in the door of their fridge and the greatest variety of Campbell’s soups in the cupboard. Sad, but true. And, you can never do a taste test unless it is side by side. I am not an expert – but that is just logical – though this was a very fun idea. I do this with my students – but they only get a bite of the KD. Yes, and some do like it better – usually one in 30 kids… and that is high! What damage we have done to the palates of our youth… but I know I am singing to the converted. Love your recipe for mac n cheese.
When I teach this – I teach the roux and basic white sauce – then the difference between baked and not baked mac and cheese…
then the adding of aromatics to the roux etc… in the end, we have a design your own mac n cheese and they come up with some wild and delicious flavour combinations.
I have been in a huge blogging slump since Eat Alberta. I just have a hard time getting back to reading, writing and posting. I miss it, yet am overwhelmed by it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with you today, though!
Hi Valerie! Of course I’m not duped by the “double calcium” claim – I was just joking 😉 As for putting something into my body: I’m ok with occasional treats, especially in the name of pseudo-scientific food experimentation! 😉 I don’t think someone should be a “perfect” eater all the time – it’s not realistic! I thought about a side-by-side taste test (Peter-style), but figured my unscientific methods allowed me to spread the mac and cheeses out and therefore avoid wasting food 🙂
I would LOVE to take one of your wonderful cooking classes someday! I know I play around at fancy, but there’s nothing like learning form the best! Don’t worry about a blogging slump! Enjoy your time off and do what you love! 🙂
Oh wow this is something we don’t have in Greece. Pasta + cheese + cream + butter – anything else sounds too heavy for me, I think I would feel stuffed and thoroughly unsatisfied after a couple of spoonfuls of this thing. In fact, I am convinced that this is why I wouldn’t eat much when I was a kid, because I kept eating similar things and got stuffed too quickly on too little.
The home-cooked version looks good though, but I would just mix the sour cream or cream cheese with a little olive oil and pepper, throw some asparagus tips in the mix and put some beautifully curled cheddar cheese on top without putting it in the oven (well, no, the cheddar I get is cut into very ugly stipes, only your cheddar looks this beautiful and curly :D).
I am intrigued by the bechamel sauce, however. As you might know, it is an essential ingredient of moussaka and it is the only part of this lush food that I cannot cook. So how is the THIH version different to the lump-prone original?
I like your version with olive oil and asparagus tips! I will definitely be trying it 🙂 My Bechamel sauce is not a real Bechamel sauce, mostly because I get too impatient and don’t cook it long enough. I do stir constantly so that it’s smooth … most of the time. You haven’t seen my Bechamel sauce disasters, Christa (I hide those).
Oh yes the asparagus one is good, trust me. 🙂 Haha the only way to never fail is to never try Jessie! You got it in the end and Bechamel sauce is well worth the effort!! (I am a huge fan obviously hehe)
I actually had Kraft Mac and Cheese a few days ago, it’s only available in import shops here though, so it’s ridiculously overpriced. I think I tried to make it myself once with a similar recipe, but it didn’t turn out well…I’ll give it another try now though. Thanks for the recipe!
Your mac ‘n’ cheese looks amazing! I know the toddler would LOVE it. I’ll have to put it on my “list” soon!
Your mac and cheese looks soo much better than all the others.
I agree that the bright orange hue does not look appetizing. I have tried amy’s brand before and I also would have to agree with the slightly grainy texture.
My mom recently made Emeril’s mac and cheese recipe and it was amazing!
Mac n cheese was definitely one of my childhood comfort foods. I just recently introduced the Kraft version to K and she lived it. Can you believe she ate a whole box herself? Well, not in one sitting of course. She had some for lunch and then the rest fir dinner, but still pretty impressive for her size. Thanks for your review on these different boxes. I love that you added veggies and proteins to your dishes. Your perfect 10 Mac n Cheese really is perfect. Healthy, easy, and tasty, that’s all one needs to look for. The Panko crumbs really add great flavour and texture. Also love that it’s not a freakishly orange colour. Haha. I’ll have to try this for K some day, it looks and sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing this lovely recipe. I have to admit though, I buy the box versions for emergency “I don’t feel like cooking” days. I agree with you, Kraft makes me drink a lot of water. I’ve never made my own Mac n Cheese though. Hope all is going well with you, Jessie.
Hahha…I never got a chance to try boxed Mac n Cheese cos I scrutinized the ingredient list too much!!! :O
This is an example of one of those foods that my mom always wanted to MAKE for me, but I always begged for the boxed kind. Now I look back and wonder what I was thinking. I was actually a fan of Velvetta shells and cheese. SOOOO creamy. I never liked Kraft, believe it or not.
I love how you pointed out the fact that Amy’s isn’t necessarily any better for you than Kraft. Everyone assumes because it’s more “natural” that it must be healthier, but that’s definitely not always the case.
I think your version sounds perfect. I love the bread crumb and parmesan cheese addition!
This post was so much fun, Jessie! And I agree, nothing compares to homemade mac and cheese. 🙂
Used to love it, but this is a food I’ve long foregone due to allergies. Your version looks fantastic!
I love mac and cheese but would not ever eat anything out the box. It is so simple and rewarding to just make your own at home, and you can really get “gourmet” with it if you like. I make a mean lobster mac and cheese. One of my absolute fav foods growing up for sure.
Funny how much of a treat Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese was in the day. My mom always used to make her own but I remember wishing she’d just buy the box – and getting excited when I’d go to friends houses who had it (embarrassing to admit this now! haha)
I love your cook-off idea, and I love that you even included organic, “healthy” kinds in the taste test. Just because a box has the word “organic” on it, doesn’t mean that it’s actually good for you! Unfortunately many people don’t read the labels, so don’t have a good idea of what they’re putting into their body.
Anyway…your version sounds delicious. I’ve never thought to put nutmeg in mac ‘n cheese but I think that would be an interesting addition!!
And now the real question is – are you totally sick of macaroni and cheese right now?? 🙂
Maya has been begging me to buy her the Kraft Mac n Cheese. This despite the fact I make an amazing homemade version, from scratch. I guess kids talk to each other and compare their mac n cheese because I otherwise have no idea why my child wants this crap?
Your version looks delicious Jessie!
I grew up on the homemade version and once you go homemade…it’s REALLY hard to go back! I’m glad that you did this taste test though and proved (in a highly scientific manner) that the blue box just can’t compare!
Oh My. YOu should have a work shop of Mac&cheese!!! You are so innovative! I have never had this while I was in China (so no childhood memory :-p) . I am not addicted to Mac&Cheese, but if I got a box of it, no veggie needed, haha 🙂
Have a great week, dear!
I realize this post was from 2011 but I’ve decided to comment anyway.
I found your blogpost via google: “organic frozen mac and cheese”. We normally make our own mac and cheese but sometimes will turn to the frozen kind if we are press for time. My son LOVES the frozen Stouffers kind but I think I may try the Annie’s or Amy’s. I know with the word “organic” it doesn’t mean healthy but if I have to feed him frozen food, at least go with a better kind(with short ingredient list and ingreadients I can read).
Sounds like a plan 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!