It’s finally happening. After generations of unpronounceable ingredients resulting in hyper orange powder and a somewhat passable cheese flavor, Kraft Foods announced that they are changing ingredients in their much loved Kraft Dinner Mac and Cheese recipe. Starting in 2016 Kraft is going to use natural ingredients such as paprika and turmeric to color the cheese powder in an attempt to meet the request of over 300,000 people who signed an on-line petition asking the manufacturer to consider healthier options and remove the synthetic dyes and coloring.
As a Canadian, I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I never tried Kraft Dinner until I was well into my teen years. My father, who took a dim view of Chef Boyardee, fast food and TV dinners, lumped good ol’ KD in that grouping and those 79-cent blue boxes of pasta and cheese powder never found a place in our family’s pantry.
I’m even more ashamed to admit that growing up I had no idea that there really was an actual pasta dish called macaroni and cheese that Kraft had based their popular boxed dinner on. As a kid, I just assumed it was some company’s creation that was well marketed and not allowed in our house. As you can imagine, my mind was blown when I finally discovered the real thing.
All these years later, I commend Kraft for doing the right (and popular) thing and making the changes. How will this affect the legacy of Kraft Dinner? Probably with increased sales and many long-time fans coming back to a product they grew up on.
But of course I wanted to do a homemade version of the real thing and make it the best and still the easiest way to make macaroni and cheese. The truth is, in the time it takes the water to boil even the most unseasoned home-cook can whip up a homemade alternative and have the only blue box be the recycling bin where the empty packages of real ingredients end up. Thus, I give you macaroni and cheese: done three ways.
I decided to do three ways so that no matter what your mood is, you can find one you like and make it. There’s a traditional version, a meat version and a jalapeño-bacon one.
Back in the 1960’s many Italian-Americans referred to any type of pasta as “macaroni”, so I figured that was carte-blanche to change up the pasta noodles as well. I went with elbow macaroni for the traditional, Fusilli (or Spirali) for the bacon/jalapeño one and small shells for the meat one.
For the two meat-themed mac and cheeses, I wanted savory flavoring, but nothing overpowering so that it becomes a meat casserole instead of a macaroni and cheese. I cooked beef, lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, onion and chive until it was brown.
As for bacon, I wanted the bacon flavor to stand out, but not be overkill. So I used traditional butcher-cut (or thick cut) bacon without any additional flavors added such as maple, smoked, applewood, etc. All together now, in your best Homer Simpson voice, “Mmmmm… bacon…”
If you’re someone who can’t or won’t eat bacon but you still want the bacon-y goodness, then I can suggest using a small amount of this; Torani Bacon Syrup. A little goes a long way and while it is salty, it’s also much sweeter than you’d expect.
Adding jalapeños isn’t just about heat, it’s also about the flavor and the crunch. I marinate my sliced peppers in vinegar and salt overnight. If you don’t have time, you can use a store-bought version. It will be our little secret. Remember though; the more seeds, the more heat, so watch out.
Making the cheese sauce is the most important part. Start with equal parts butter and flour. Add the cheese and your desired dairy choice milk or cream, depending on how thick you want it. Naturally if you’re making more than one kind, you’ll need to make more sauce.
For the bacon/jalapeno version, once the cheese is a sauce-like consistency, add the diced peppers and cooked bacon.
Add the noodles, mix with the sauce and bake at 350F for about 20 minutes. If you liked the added crispiness of a top coating, you can sprinkle breadcrumbs on the pasta before baking. Let it stand for a few minutes once out of the oven.
- 3 cups Pasta
- 3 tbs Butter
- 3 tbs Flour
- 2 cups 2% Milk or 10% Cream
- 8 slices Bacon or 1 lbs Ground Beef
- 3 sliced Jalapenos (for the bacon version)
- 2 cups Shredded Cheese
- Salt & Pepper (to season beef)
- 1 tbs Butter or Olive Oil (for cooking beef)
- Boil pasta in lightly salted water. Remove from heat when done, drain and set aside. (Do NOT rinse)
- Cook meat, either bacon or beef if you are making the meat version. Set aside once cooked.
- In a saucepot, melt butter and slowly whisk in flour to get 'paste-like' consistency'.
- Slowly add milk or cream then add shredded cheese and continue to whisk until there are no lumps and it has become cheese sauce.
- Add drained pasta to cheese sauce and mix well.
- For the beef add the meat now or for the bacon version, add beacon and jalapenos.
- Mix well then bake in oven in a baking dish, covered at 350F for 15 minutes. Let stand once baked for 5 minutes