First, I didn't know what I was getting myself into.
I got what I wanted though: great recipes for mac n' cheese. Six recipes were submitted, well, seven really, but one was rescinded by it's submitter after she made it herself, was appalled at how awful it was, and then spent a sleepless night worrying that she was too late to stop me from making it for the contest (she wasn't).
I didn't realize how time consuming it would be to compile a grocery list, convert measurements where needed, and acquire the needed supplies. Aside from all the work though, the whole family pitched in to help and that, along with one very serious family discussion on who should be the winner, was the most fun of all.
How the Recipes Were Prepared and Graded
So that none of us would know the names of the people who submitted recipes, I assigned a number to each recipe as I received them, and kept the identifying information on a file on my computer. Each recipe was prepared on it's own, and baked in it's own container that was labeled with its appropriate number. For ease, the recipes were halved. Each taste tester was given a plate with the numbers 1 thru 6 on it. Each tester took a sampling of each recipe and placed the sample next to the corresponding number. As the recipes were sampled, individual questionnaires were filled out and submitted back to me. Each recipe was graded 1 thru 5 in the areas of taste, texture, and appearance, with 1 being bad and 5 being good. The scores were tabulated, which revealed the winner...sort of.
The recipe that came out the winner by points alone was a nontraditional recipe for mac n' cheese. Call it gourmet mac n' cheese if you would like. It calls for three different types of cheese, bacon, and was also the most difficult and expensive to make. In addition, it used penne pasta instead of good old elbow mac. Some might (and some did) argue that this is not mac n' cheese at all, but an incredibly delicious pasta dish. However, it beat out one of the traditional mac n' cheeses by only one point. This was the hinge on which the serious family debate swung. If one of the traditional mac n' cheese recipes was nearly as good as the nontraditional one, was less expensive AND easier to make, some argued that the traditional recipe should be the winner. So what's a judge to do with two amazing recipes?
The answer was to announce both these recipes a winner. One would offer readers a fancy, restaurant-quality pasta dish, while the other would offer a simply delicious, family and kid friendly recipe for good old mac n' cheese. So my congratulations go to Tara Nelson and Leslie Hansen, the winners of The Great Mac n' Cheese Recipe Contest.
Leslie's submission is below, Tara's, above.
(The Non Traditional) Submitted by Tara Nelson
Tara had this to say about her recipe:
Here is a recipe I found on the blog Lottie + Doof and I LOVE IT. I know this may sound picky but the topping for the recipe is ten times better if made with the Panko bread crumbs and not generic ones--they add more crunch than most toppings do! This recipe does make a lot of mac n' cheese but it re-heats very well. I love anything with cheese and pasta and this one hit the spot. I try to make it at least every other month! :)
Mac + Cheese (Lottie + Doof Style)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 slices bacon, diced
1 cup of finely chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or less if you would like this with less spice)
2 small garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
3 cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
4 ounces Mascarpone or cream cheese
3/4 cup panko (Japanese Breadcrumbs)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 pound Penne
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in large deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add bacon and cook until crisp. Use a slotted spoon to remove bacon to paper towels to drain. Remove all but about 3 tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add onion and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and garlic, stir for 1 minute. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, allow to melt, and then add the flour and stir for a minute. Gradually whisk in 3 cups of milk; simmer until thick enough to coat a spoon, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in 2 1/4 cups of cheddar and all of the Parmesan cheese and marscapone. Return bacon to sauce and season with salt and pepper.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add panko and stir until light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in parsley.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Lighly butter a 13×9x2 inch glass baking dish or similarly sized gratin dish. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling water until very al dente. Drain well. Toss pasta and cheese sauce and season again with salt and pepper, if needed. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish and top with remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake until hot and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
(The Traditional) Submitted by Leslie Hansen
Leslie had this to say about her recipe:
Ok, here is my submission. I'll be honest, I haven't made it in a while since if it doesn't come out of a blue box with Kraft written on it, my kids won't eat it! The little stinkers! My VERY favorite mac and cheese is from Noodles and Company. This recipe is just a bit fancier. Good stuff. Now I am craving it! Too bad, kiddos. Mac and Cheese for dinner tomorrow.
Fancy Macaroni and Cheese From InStyle Magazine
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. dry mustard
½ tsp. pepper
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper
2 tbsp. butter
¼ cup chopped scallions
1 ½ cups milk
1 ¾ cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided
½ cup sour cream (optional, I usually put in a couple spoonfuls)
2 cups elbow macaroni, cooked
½ cups unseasoned bread crumbs
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In small bowl, combine flour, salt, mustard, pepper and cayenne. Melt butter in medium skillet over medium heat. Add scallions and sauté 2 minutes, until slightly softened. Add flour mixture and cook for 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly until thickened. Remove from heat. Stir in 1 ½ cups cheese, and sour cream, if using. Add macaroni. Pour into greased 1 ½ qt. baking dish. Top with remaining cheese and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake 25-30 minutes or until bread crumbs are lightly browned. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.
A big thank you to my mom, the Mel Mel, for her help in the kitchen, and to my bro bro, Chris, for helping with labeling, photography, and math. And additional acknowledgments go to all the taste testers: Mom, Dad, Chris, Martha, Joey, Samantha, and Connor. Special thanks to all that submitted recipes, this mac n' cheese mayhem wouldn't have happened without you.