My Love Affair with Macaroni & Cheese

This is a SERIOUS update to my previous post. I had my second place winner listed incorrectly. In our precious city, we have a private club called the Capital City Club. And while I have eaten there and their food is fabulous, my second place winner came from a new restaurant called Capital Club 16, which I now know I will frequent. My revisions are below.

I don’t remember when the affair began but macaroni & cheese has been a big part of my life for most of my life. In the early years, I remember the real treat for me was when my mom (who has never been a mac & cheese fan) would pick up a can of Franco-American “Macaroni with Cheese Sauce.” This delicacy is no longer made but think of “macaroni” as long squishy hollow noodles and “cheese sauce” as cheese flavored water. Still, it drew me in.

Franco American Macaroni and Cheese Sauce

I’m a fan of the blue box even though I think their packaging could use some help. I love Velveeta Shells & Cheese. I like Annie’s line of natural macaroni & cheese. And when I feel like going all nutty with my calorie intake, I’ve been known to eat Stouffer’s macaroni & cheese. Sometimes it’s the family size.

So when I saw that Raleigh was going to be hosting MacDown, a mac & cheese contest, as part of SPARKcon, a 4 day festival celebrating creativity, I saw the future and it was mine.

I quickly found out who was organizing it and sent a gentle letter of inquiry:

“So first, I read a tweet about the Mac Down coming to Raleigh. And then I see your email address listed for people interested in judging. Umm, hello? I’ve been eating and critiquing macaroni & cheese all my life. Not only is it my favorite food, not only am I a bottomless pit when it comes to eating it, but I also have very discriminate tastes with macaroni & cheese.

Please consider me for judgeship and make my dreams come true!!!”

So my dreams came true when I was selected. I asked for judgeship and I got it. I was one of 20 or so people selected to judge the entries from restaurants near and far and critique each entry in pursuit of the title of “the best.”

On Saturday, September 18th, I headed downtown to look for the blue tent with the bowl of macaroni & cheese on top. I met my fellow judges, including the mastermind behind, and the head honcho behind Raleigh Downtowner.

Me and Freezerburns

We were briefed on the tasting rules for our double-blind taste test of 12 entries of macaroni & cheese. My only question was could I get a second bite of the entries, you know, in case I needed it?

We were not told the restaurants who entered. We were not told what was in each of the entries. We were told to eat, take notes, and then assign a grade or rating to each entry. In complete silence.

NOTE: If you’ve ever met me, the only way you’ll get me to cooperate in complete silence is if you shove my mouth full of macaroni & cheese. So it all worked out.

I sample and savored each and every bite. I took notes. I compared. Then I narrowed it down to my top 3 choices. In addition to our notes and ratings, we had to decide if we were stranded on a deserted island and could only choose one dish, what would that dish be. That’s a pretty big decision for a mac & cheese lover like me. I rank my dishes 1, 2, and 3. I turned in my card sure that I had picked the winner.

My rankings

My detailed notes

I returned about 45 minutes later to hear the winners announced.

#3: Great choice but this was my second favorite. Creamy goodness topped with the exquisite taste of caramelized onions. I hope that left bigger and better dishes for the winning spot.

#2: Are you kidding me?

#1: Very traditional but nothing that knocked the socks off me.

So now. I’m hear to present to you my findings of the double blind taste test of the finest macaroni & cheese in town.

My criteria:

  • firmness of noodles (nothing squishy)
  • shape of the pasta (traditional elbow preferred but anything goes aslong as it holds the sauce)
  • creaminess (a must)
  • cheesiness (must be authentically cheesy, no canned cheese please)
  • creativity (I love the traditional stuff but I’m open to new ideas)

My choices:

First place: Woody’s At City Market

Fried balls of goodness

Woody’s is not the place you would go for health food. Oh sure, they offer salads and sandwiches. But the Fried Mac & Cheese balls (yes, you read that right) cannot be beat even with the grease dripping off of it. The outside of the ball is breaded genius. Just the right level of crispiness and flavor. The inside is pure heaven. Wide, ridged macaroni noodles in a heavenly creamy and cheesy sauce with just the palest hint of yellow.

A purist may say a fried ball is sacrilege but for me, the taste was spot on.

Second Place: Capital Club 16

So I originally had mentioned how I thought this one had come from a private club in town. I ranted “How dare they taunt us with deliciously creamy pasta with a subtle hint of cheese topped exquisitely with caramelized onions only to tell us that we can’t possibly eat it again unless we’re member?” The good news is there is a new game in town by the name of Capital Club 16. It’s a new restaurant downtown and now I know where my next night out will be.That mac & cheese sure was good. It was my first bite so the others had a lot to live up to.

#11 is Capital City Club; #9 is The Mint

Third Place: The Mint

Ahhh, The Mint. The beautiful restaurant where my husband and I shared a romantic evening out downtown. Had I known they served this dish, the evening would have been a whole lot more beautiful. I know this dish is not for everyone but as soon as I put the first bite in my mouth, I could taste the delicately flavored truffle oil lighting complementing the mini-penne pasta and creamy goodness. Truffle oil is unexpected and certainly not a taste for everyone. But for me? Perfect.

Can you tell I take this very seriously?

And now you have my complete rundown of what it’s like to be a macaroni & cheese judge. I just hope that being a founding judge of this contest gives me some sort of lifelong privileges. I’d like to return again. I’d like to judge again. I’d also like to accept any offers of fine dining establishments that care to offer me a bite of their rendition.

So, where are my mac & cheese lovers? How do you like it?

  • Andrea W

    Fried mac n’chese balls. Yes Please! Oh yummy yummy goodness. There are two places with my favorite: Dave’s BBQ who does jalapeño mac n’cheese (and I don’t even like spicy but it’s an omg kind of yummy) and this place called The Rusty Bucket in Cincinnati. Don’t think about the name and just eat the mnc. So yum.

    I’m jealous. If any mnc contests come through Cincinnati – I’m available!!

    • Anonymous

      Hey Andrea… I have an idea. START YOUR OWN! Find some local event going on and get the restaurants to enter. It’s free for them, gives them free publicity, but more importantly? Free mac & cheese for you.

      Not sure about that jalapeno choice though…

  • Melisa

    Love mac and cheese. It’s just such a great comfort food! I remember anytime I was sick my mom would make me a bowl and I would get to eat it in bed while watching TV. Good times, even if I was sick.

    I now make my own mac and cheese and it has to be creamy. Sometimes I add garlic salt to change up the flavor. Other times I add peas for a healthy kick. But I truly enjoy it in its purest form. Now that being said…that fried ball? OH EM GEE, I have to try one! Or several.

    • Anonymous

      You’re pregnant. You should totally go for the fried ball. The rest of us just don’t have a good enough excuse for all that cheesy fried goodness. Hmmm. Maybe I SHOULD get pregnant…

  • Scargosun

    I am a 4 cheese kind of gal, baked in the oven with a lot of breadcrumbs and maybe some fried leeks. I will even toast extra breadcrumbs for the topping so they don’t all get soggy while baking. My DH like the traditional kind that his mom makes but it always needs…something.

    • Anonymous

      You had me at fried leeks. That sounds so darn good. I usually don’t make my own because it is never creamy and cheesy enough. Now I’m thinking I might need your recipe. Oh, and as a rule? MILs aren’t good cooks.

  • Coma Girl

    Ok, seriously this is so funny! And I thought you were joking at first (good thing you had pictures to prove it!).

    I too love Mac & Cheese and did you see the new kind Kraft (I know, I know!) came out with? It comes with bread crumbs to bake on top. It’s kind of yummy.

    And now I want fried mac & cheese balls.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, I’ve had that new Kraft kind. I’m sure I’ve had every kind on the market. But if I’m going box style? I need the good old fashioned blue box (which I usually prefer to homemade, shhhhhh)

  • Jo

    Fried Mac & Cheese? I’m in! I’ll even eat veggies if they are fried.

    • Anonymous

      North Carolina is all about fried goodness. We have our state fair coming up and it’s always a surprise to find out the new disgusting fried food of the fair. Twinkies, candy bars, cheeseburgers… you name it, we fry it.

  • Stay At Home Babe

    I have an amazing mac n cheese recipe with bacon and caramelized onions… I could email it to you.

    • Anonymous

      Here’s what I read…

      amazing cheese bacon onions

      To which I reply… SEND

  • Anonymous

    I could just about live off of mac & cheese, much to my husband’s chagrin. I’ll do the boxed stuff, frozen stuff, semi-homemade (aka elbows with a shredded 4-cheese blend melted in) and real homemade, with a roux and baked in the oven.

    I wish they had a mac & cheese contest in Vegas – I’d love to get a gig like that.

    • Anonymous

      So you’re telling me we’re kindred spirits, huh? Yeah, my husband is totally a meat man. I could eat a whole box of mac & cheese while he could eat half of a cow.

      Maybe you should start a contest in Vegas. Sounds like destiny is calling :)

  • Anonymous

    I love mac and cheese! I make a vegan version that doesn’t even use fake cheese. It’s delish. Also? Your tits look crazy hot in the first photo.

    • Anonymous

      How do you make a vegan version without fake cheese? Like some sort of cauliflower puree or what?

      And thanks? for my compliment? I guess.

  • The Grasshoppa

    I like mine baked—-with REAL cheese, made with thick ruffly noodles. The End.

    • Anonymous

      I will have to sample before I can approve. What time should I stop by?

  • Anonymous

    Oooh. Now I see what you were talking about. HUGE OOOH. Fried Mac and Cheese balls? Could there BE anything better? I’m hungry now, and it’s time for bed. Yum.

    • Anonymous

      I should not be responding to these comments at lunch time. I’m feeling like my lunch *might* not be that healthy today.

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