It should come as no surprise that staff members here at Formaggio Kitchen are pretty passionate about mac and cheese. Everyone has a different take on their favorite – affected by how they had it growing up, pasta shapes and, of course, cheese preferences. As with the grilled cheese survey of a few months ago, I took a little stroll around the shop to see just how varied folks’ notion of this classic dish were. Here are the results!
I started in the office where cheesemonger and buyer, Julia, told me that she likes to use a blend of Gruyère and Comté Trois Sapins in her mac and cheese. Her secret? Adding cottage cheese which she blends in a food processor until no lumps remain – she says, that it, “adds a lot of moisture and body while counteracting greasiness.” Among the things Julia oversees at the shop is our spice selection – it is fitting then that she finishes off her dish with a nice cracked black pepper or Maras pepper. She chooses not use bread crumbs.
Kendall, manager and buyer, was also in the office at that moment and demurred, stating a strong preference for panko on top of her mac and cheese, dotted with cubes of butter before baking. She likes to use elbows or farfalle (aka bow ties) because they do an excellent job of “catching the sauce” and always uses Brie and a cheddar – plus 6-8 other cheeses. She cites our “cheese bits” bin at the register as an excellent resource for small pieces of good cheese that are perfect for blending and adding complexity.
Classroom coordinator and cheesemonger, Erin, has fond memories of the mac and cheese made by her grandmother. Her preferences were shaped by that version and she stipulates that her ideal mac and cheese is baked, contains a touch of spice and has a crunchy breadcrumb topping. She says, “the gooier the better” and likes to use either elbows or small tubular ziti-esque pasta.
Another breadcrumb devotee is produce buyer, Emily, who is also a brilliant at-home chef (you may be familiar with her recipes in the weekly dinner e-mail that she sends out every Monday). Her pasta preference is for orecchiette, “the little hats,” because, “they catch the cheese sauce so well.” Emily always uses a blend of different milk types in her mac and cheese – cow, sheep and goat – and always includes a small amount of a washed-rind cheese to give the dish “more body.” A recent favorite has been Hooligan from Cato Corner Farm in CT.
Selma is in charge of our accounts, produces delicious chocolate dipped figs for our chocolate case and we are fortunate indeed when she treats us to the scrumptious meze of her native Turkey. Like Emily, she adds heft to her mac and cheese by including a cheese with punch – opting, however, for a blue cheese instead of a washed-rind.
As I left the office to continue research upstairs, I ran into our head chef, Eduardo, who concurred with Selma – a touch of blue cheese “always helps” he said. Eduardo regularly makes mac and cheese for our store dinner and I confess to scanning the shift schedule, cross-referencing it with the dinner menu to see if I will be working on the day he plans to make it. One thing he confided about his famed version of the dish – he always includes some Parmigiano Reggiano. He also likes to use elbows, observing how iconic they are and that you “don’t mess with icons.” Before returning to the stove, he added that he never uses goat cheese but does like sheep milk cheeses – a brebis for instance – for their “fabulous flavor.”
Kurt, our lead cheese buyer and general manager, happened to pass through the kitchen while I was surveying. Although technically on his day off, he had come in, as he often does, to do a couple of hours of office work and place cheese orders. He concurred with Eduardo on pasta type – elbows all the way – and said that his go-to combo cheese-wise is Comté, Gouda and cheddar. Liz, our catering manager, also in the kitchen at that moment, was a third voice in favor of elbows and added her voice to the breadcrumb contingent.
Ana, our talented panini maker, was mid-sandwich-making when I rolled up to her station. Like Liz, she indicated a strong preference for breadcrumbs, adding that Swiss cheese is a must because it is so “melty.” On occasion, she also likes to add in a little bit of turkey to her mac and cheese, increasing the heartiness factor.
Moving to the front of the house, I checked in with staff members on the cheese counter. Monger Brad likes fusilli (the corkscrew shaped pasta) for his mac and cheese which he makes with fresh sage and Mornay sauce. He also likes to caramelize onions which, in an interesting twist, he chooses not to mix in with the pasta but instead puts them on top of the dish. He says this allows them to “crisp up when they bake.” I thought that sounded pretty delicious. On a final note, Brad added that he likes to use a touch of Cajun seasoning to lend both flavor and color.
Our domestic cheese buyer and runner of marathons, Tripp, told me that he is an equal opportunist as far as mac and cheese is concerned. However, the one thing he did say, was that, like Eduardo, he always uses a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano.
Cave Manager and cheesemonger, Tyler, weighed in with his preferred pasta shapes: garganelli and strozzapretti. He made a mac and cheese we dubbed “Mil Fromages” at the shop a little while back and as the name implies, he included a wide range of cheeses. As such, it is unsurprising that, cheese-wise, he is quite flexible. That said, he did evince a preference for Toma Ala because of its “earth tone and meltability.” He also told me that he likes to look for sharp cheeses – something along the lines of Gruyère – when embarking on a mac and cheese adventure.
Moving from the cheese side towards the bakery, I passed by the station of charcutière Julie. On inquiry, Julie said that she is a “purist,” in that she doesn’t like anything besides cheese sauce in her mac and cheese. She is also a big fan of Eduardo’s version because it’s “not pasty,” like so many out there. She likes small shells for their ability to hold sauce and enjoys a breadcrumb topping too. A touch of cayenne is also desirable for a slight “pungency.”
Continuing on into the bakery, I checked in with Alice, our head baker. She is among the devotees with a preference for elbows and a breadcrumb topping. In terms of cheese, she likes to use a combo of cheddar, mozzarella and Monterey Jack. As a final note, Alice added that sometimes she likes to make the dish a little lighter and does this by substituting a bit of tomato sauce for the roux or white sauce.
In the front of the bakery, I ran into Matthew, cheesemonger and coffee buyer, who was chatting with Sandy, our bakery manager, about a new coffee he had brought in and was keen to sample at our coffee station. Matthew added another vote to the tally for shell-shaped pasta, indicating that he likes to add dried pepper too – something like Maras or Urfa – to lend a touch of heat and roastiness to the dish. In terms of cheese, he likes Calcagno (a sheep milk cheese from Sardinia), or a mid-aged goat, “nothing too salty but something full-bodied” – something like U Paese (a goat cheese from Corsica).
When I first brought up mac and cheese, Sandy’s first thought was for Eduardo’s version, of which she is a big fan. At home, when making the dish herself, she likes to use Comté and occasionally augments it by adding in broccoli or roasted red peppers. One secret tip that I picked up from Sandy was the way she prepares her bread crumbs – she processes them in a food processor with cubes of cold butter. This allows the butter to get thoroughly dispersed through the breadcrumb topping, aiding with both flavor and the crispiness factor. Definitely something to try.
From the bakery, I made my way to the register. There, Serena made my mouth water with a description of mac and cheese that sounded like it belonged on a restaurant menu. She prefers to use penne and a good cheddar in her mac and cheese, mixing in a healthy amount of caramelized onions. The finishing touch? A touch of truffle oil with which she, “anoints the dish at the end or swirls in with the pasta before baking.”
Next stop on my tour of the shop was the produce department where I found Hanako, another fan of orecchiette and baked breadcrumb topping. Julio, our produce manager, was also in the house and stated that in addition to an affinity for breadcrumbs and ziti, he likes to top his mac and cheese with a little tomato sauce, enjoying how it melds with the underlying cheese notes.
The visit to produce brought my little mini survey of staffers to a close. It yielded some excellent ideas for further mac and cheese experimentation – from the way Sandy processes her bread crumbs, to Brad’s caramelized onion topping. Personally? Some of the variations I have enjoyed and tried in the past have involved adding cubes of Jambon de Paris, mixing in roasted garlic and/or sautéed shallots. In terms of topping, I have gone with pure breadcrumbs and butter – on other occasions, I have mixed in small bacon pieces or grated Parmigiano. Spice-wise, white pepper and grated nutmeg are among those in my go-to recipes. Recently, I shared a B&G Oysters-inspired experiment with toasting orzo which I used in a parm-only version of mac and cheese – toasting pasta was a new and scrumptious variation for me. Going forward, I only envision further delicious experimentation with this classic dish and I hope this helps inspire you too!
A little recap of the ingredients/preferences mentioned by various staff members:
Mary is a cheesemonger and baker at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.