Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Macaroni and Cheese delights

I was not the most original kid in the world when it came to my culinary tastes. I liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (no crust please), plain cheese pizza and good ol' Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I don't know if I ever knew that macaroni and cheese could come out of anything but a blue box. When Kraft started expanding their line-up of mac and cheese offerings from the regular macaroni half- circle pasta to twists, shapes and shells with creamy, gooey Velveeta cheese smeared over them- WOAH! I thought I had hit the big time in expanding my culinary repertoire. Then again I was only 10 and it was the early 90's so you can't fault me too much.

As with all things- I changed and so did the landscape of macaroni and cheese in America. I'm not sure my sister, who are a generation younger than I, have ever seen macaroni and cheese out of a blue box. Food tastes in America have changed drastically over the past 20 years as we have become more socially, organically and economically aware. My sisters now crave Annie's mac and cheese in fun Arthur the Aardvark shapes. I, on the other hand, have come to find out that macaroni and cheese comes in all shapes and sizes and, with the discovery of my gluten allergy, in pasta not made with wheat flour but rather rice, quinoa and other exotic grain flours.

When I first found out I couldn't eat pasta I had a bit of a breakdown- my diet was mostly pasta based. So instead of trying to find alternative ways to cook I looked to directly substitute what I had already been eating- sometimes with great success and other times with some difficulty. Luckily for me there are many gluten free alternatives to the “American classic” of macaroni and cheese. In the two years since I discovered wheat was a memory of the past I have expanding my cooking talents and culinary tastes, but there are days when I still just want to whip up a quick box of mac and cheese! Where did this nationwide obsession with mac and cheese that I inherited come from and why was it so important that I replace it in my new gluten free diet?

Many food historians credit Mary Randolph, Thomas Jefferson's daughter, with inventing a macaroni and parmesan dish that serves as a forefather to our current pasta and cheddar dish. More than likely Jefferson himself brought the dish back after his travels in Italy. Then, in 1937 amid economic troubles and war, Kraft macaroni and cheese sold a record 8 million boxed dinners. During World War Two the popularity of Kraft macaroni soared tenfold and proved to be a filling meat substitute that was also affordable- costing families only one ration coupon per box. Now Kraft dominates the macaroni and cheese aisle with dozens of different types of products including Macaroni and Cheese Deluxe, Back to Nature Macaroni and Cheese, Bistro Deluxe Creamy Portabello Mushroom, Easy Mac (a college freshman staple) and Original Macaroni and Cheese available in various shapes including Spider Man, Scooby Doo and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

Macaroni and Cheese has also played a big role in African- American kitchens throughout American culinary history. Joseph C Phillips, an actor based in Los Angeles, commented on the importance of macaroni and cheese in his life on the NPR show “News and Notes”. He describes becoming enraged when he saw his children were eating “powdered orange gook” (the same gook I loved as a suburban child in the 80s and 90s). He describes good macaroni and cheese dishes as “elbow macaroni with creamy custard like cheddar cheese sauce covered with a crusty layer of cheese and butter and breadcrumbs”. That sounds a heck of a lot better than the “powdered orange gook” of my childhood. Mom- what were you doing to me? Didn't you love me? Or did you love my low cholesterol more?

As I ventured out to find quality gluten-free macaroni and cheese I tried many varieties- powdered and boxed, frozen and creamed and homemade. Many of the products I tried out are readily available in most nationwide grocery stores in the “organic” food section or at your local natural food store. Macaroni and cheese has come a long way since the Jefferson family was making it with Parmesan cheese but I think they would get a kick out of the dish becoming an American classic- even for the Gluten intolerant.

Annies Rice Macaroni and Cheese (Boxed)

Annie's Rice Macaroni and Cheese is most like the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese products of my childhood. And although some may call it “powdered orange gook” there are days I just want that “powdered orange gook” darn it! I had a lot of good memories with that kind of macaroni and cheese and although my tastes have expanded there are times I like to have a walk down memory lane with boxed macaroni and cheese- powdered cheese and all!

I was thrilled when I first found that Annie's made a rice version of their very popular boxed macaroni and cheese. I was so thrilled that I failed to read the directions- after all I had been making macaroni and cheese for almost 25 years when I was diagnosed- I don't need to read directions anymore. As most recently diagnosed celiacs will tell you rice pasta cooks a bit differently than wheat pasta. Also, Annies has you make the cheese sauce in a measuring cup with the milk before pouring it over the hot, drained macaroni. Good call Annie- this prevents the lumping of powdered product all over your pasta. It helps to read the directions and I suggest you do so if you are new to gluten free cooking.

After I nailed down how to cook the box the way Annie intended- I was satisfied. The pasta cooks up al dente and the cheese mixture is able to spread over the pasta without clumping up. I am a cheese lover though so I wish that Annie's provided more cheese for the sauce especially because not all of the sauce gets on the macaroni pasta from the measuring cup. The cheese sauce lacks a lot of favor but, I truly don't remember much “BAM” flavor in my childhood macaroni so I don't fault Annie's too much for their lack of taste. It would be fun if Annie made some of her kid friendly versions- with shapes of Arthur and friends- gluten-free as well for children who avoid gluten. Overall, I think Annie's is a nice stand-by for a quick lunch or light dinner with a salad or sandwich. I almost always have a box or two in my pantry.


Amy's Rice Macaroni and Cheese (Frozen Meal)

Amy's has been offering a rather extensive collection of vegetarian frozen meals and more to Americans since 1987. Amy's has started expanding their repertoire within the past few years to include gluten-free, lactose- free and many other special diet products. Amy's Rice Macaroni and Cheese was one of the first gluten-free alternatives I turned to when I was diagnosed. It's quick and easy- a college celiac's alternative to Easy Mac (though more expensive). After 4 minutes in the microwave you have an al dente macaroni and cheese treat! The pasta is reminiscent of wheat flour pasta and does not have the grainy texture that some gluten-free pastas have. The creamy cheese has a surprising nutty taste that leaves you wanting more- and Amy anticipated this by not skimping on the cheese at all. Usually after I have had one of my Amy's meals I have cheese left over in my paper microwave container. There is only a slight powder after taste to the cheese but it is barely noticeable. Amy's has done a great job at developing a tasty macaroni and cheese dish for those of us who are unable to eat gluten and wheat.


Glutino Gluten Free Macaroni and Cheese 3-Cheese Blend (Frozen Meal)

Both Annie's and Amy's are food producers who do not specialize in food for people with allergies, but, Glutino, as the name suggests, specializes in food specifically for those who can not eat gluten. Glutino is a company based in Quebec whose product can be found in grocery and health food stores as well as directly through Glutino's website.

Most Glutino products knock my socks off but my socks stayed firmly on after making their 3-cheese macaroni and cheese. I cooked per the package directions but when I first took the box out of the microwave I found that I had macaroni and cheese soup. I microwaved it a bit longer and while I still had some “soup” it was better. Additionally, the noodles were not cooked evenly some being too hard and others too soft, the cheese was visibly oily and for a frozen meal the cheese was too powdery for my liking. Not my favorite of all of the macaroni and cheese's that I have sampled but I don't count Glutino out either- I am typically pleased with their products so after some time passes I may give their macaroni and cheese another shot hoping that it has gone through some serious product development.

Carol Fenster's Macaroni and Cheese (Homemade)

My mother sent me Carol Fenster's “Gluten Free Quick and Easy” cookbook while I was living in New York and I started using her recipes almost immediately. I typically use cookbook recipes as a jumping off point to learn how to make things that I don't normally make- like b├ęchamel sauce. I have made this recipe a couple of times and have always made a few substitutions. Below is her recipe with my changes.

1 bag gluten free macaroni (I used Tinkayada)
3 cups skim milk
¼ cup rice flour (Uncle Bobs) and then as needed to thicken
2 table spoons unsalted butter
1 ½ cup smoked Gouda
1 ½ cup yellow sharp cheddar
a few squirts of dijon mustard
a few shakes of salt
a few shakes of paprika
1. Prepare pasta
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease an over proof 2- quart dish
3. Place all except ¼ cup of milk into heavy pan over medium heat. Stir the rice flour into the remaining milk until smooth and mix into pan. Add butter and mix continuously. Continue whisking and adding rice flour as needed to thicken.
Note: Add rice flour 1/8 or ¼ cup at a time. Milk mixture will be half as thick as regular milk. You should still be able to whisk through the mixture easily.
4. Remove pan from heat and whisk in mustard, cheeses and salt until cheese is melted. Then pour over drained pasta in pot and transfer to baking dish
5. Bake 25-30 minutes or until cheese is bubbly.

You can really use any kind of cheese. I just happen to be a huge smoked Gouda fan so I mixed the smoked Gouda and sharp cheddar. The smokiness of the Gouda is just enough to make you happy to be alive. Homemade mac and cheese is great because you get the crusty cheese top and creamy underneath that warms you from the inside. This dish is great alone or paired with gluten free fried chicken or a tomato and greens salad. I think if Joseph C. Phillips had to eat gluten- free he would be most pleased with this dish- its delish! This dish is great alone or paired with gluten free fried chicken or a tomato and greens salad.

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