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March 31, 2023. Dear Kids– I never ate Kraft Mac and Cheese growing up, and Panera’s version was decades away, but you kids sure had your share of both. I grew up with Granny’s “chunky style” mac and cheese and often enjoyed another rustic version- a Southern style mac and cheese from the kitchen of the wonderful and giving Carolina mom of a best friend.
I guess I succumbed to the peer pressure as a young stay at home dad with all that Kraft Mac and cheese going around town, never thinking to make a homemade version- if I did it certainly would have been chunky. Well, what’s done is done and now I do make a homemade version of mac and cheese that I hear isn’t smooth and creamy enough for one or both of you lovelies.
Not being one to ignore my kids- at least a good majority of the time- I’ve set out to make a smooth and creamy version just for you and anyone else who cares for such a thing. It’s just as quick and cheap as Kraft and just as rich and creamy as Panera. In fact, it’s so much less expensive than Panera you could buy an entire dozen of cage free eggs with the money you save (or put it towards that Millennial Toast Down Payment).
So here you go- my version of a smooth creamy and dreamy mac and cheese for you kids that I hope you’ll agree blows both Kraft’s and Panera’s away.
Prep Time: 3 minutes
Cook Time: 3 minutes plus pasta cooking time as package directs
Servings: 2-3 (about a pound)
GET YOUR STUFF OUT
- 5 oz small pasta shapes
- 2.5 ounces (4 slices) Kraft Deli Deluxe American Cheese slices (“The champagne of processed cheese”)
- 2.5 ounces cheddar and/or other favorite real cheese, grated
- 2-4 ounces (1/4-1/2 cup) luscious liquid like heavy cream, half and half or whole, low or nonfat milk (in descending order of lusciousness and calories), as you wish
COOK AND PLAY
Cook & Play. Play “Mac and Cheese” by VeggieTales and be transported back to your childhood while you wait for your pasta to cook.
1. The Mac. Cook pasta as directed by package in a 3 quart saucepan, but do yourself a flavor and add up to a 1/2 tablespoon of salt to the water in which you will cook the pasta.
2. The Magic. Drain pasta and reserve- return pot to low heat- too high on the heat and the cheese may turn grainy and nobody wants that. Add liquid to pot (see Note below)- then add cheese slices, stirring to completely melt- just a few minutes. Stir in grated cheese until completely melted, then stir in reserved pasta.
Note. If using more than a 1/4 cup of liquid, reserve 2 tablespoons of liquid and adjust consistency of sauce with reserved liquid, or even more liquid, as you wish keeping in mind that the sauce will thicken as it cools. Stir remaining liquid, or more, once all cheese is melted to get the consistency you like.
3. The Munchies. Eat unadorned or with your favorite crumbled chips on top.
Picky Kids! I was never a fan of making a second meal for a picky kid, although for health reasons I would and have made second meals for pescetarian, vegetarian or vegan kids- mine and others. Still, this recipe is so easy, I’ll be happy to whip it up for you picky kids separately even when I’m making my version of mac and cheese that goes something like this Buffalo Style or, for a bit more fun, something like this Lucky 7 version.
Processed Cheese- Really Dad? Yes really! First of all, I don’t think you can get more processed than the pack of powdered “cheese” that comes with Kraft. As for Panera’s, here’s a link to the ingredients for its supermarket version and the version served in its restaurant, which includes “… Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread, Mononitrate, Lactic Acid,Modified Corn Starch, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum, Lactic Acid, Sodium Alginate, Microbial And Animal Enzymes, Calcium Lactate …” to name a few.
Secondly, and more importantly, the sodium citrate contained in American* cheese is a super easy, smooth sauce maker because it makes cheese that would otherwise separate or become grainy when melted, smooth as silk when it hits the heat.
In particular, I highly recommend Kraft Deli Deluxe American Cheese* (not a sponsor)- after testing supermarket deli sliced American cheese and the supermarket plastic wrapped American cheese singles found in the Dairy Section (I always thought they were so fancy as a kid- I mean gifted wrapped cheese!). The smooth and creamy factor brought to the party by the Deli Deluxe has no equal.
* Yes, kids, I realize Canada and Mexico, Central and South America are all part of the “Americas”, and this cheese should be more aptly called USA Cheese, but I don’t make the rules in the supermarkets.
Penny Pinching. If you can trust my math (Mom doesn’t), the cost of 16 ounces of the Spawn is about $2.29, while Kraft’s is about $2.71; and Panera’s is about $7.99 for the same amount. I actually created a cost spreadsheet in honor of your Auntie, who is very tough when it comes to spreadsheets- rumor has it she made a coworker cry over formatting- so I hope she approves.
As You Wish. I like to go with equal parts by weight of pasta and cheese when I make Mac & Cheese. For this recipe I was also hoping to go with equal parts of luscious liquid in order to keep things easy to remember, but 5 ounces of liquid is bit too loose for me- I want to taste the cheese and keep the creaminess somewhere between Kraft (hardly any) and Panera (quite a bit). As for you- see what you think, starting with 1/4 of liquid and going from there.
As for the real cheese, I used only white cheddar in this recipe, but I usually use a combination of cheeses. A tastier cheese like cheddar, swiss or parmesan, along with whatever “melting cheese” is languishing in the Cheese Box in the fridge (our “house” often brings in cheeses that get “lost” and get moldy before they’re “found”, so I had to put together a Cheese Box to keep track of it all). Cheeses that melt nicely, hence the term “Melting Cheese”, include Monterey Jack, Fontina, Gouda, Havarti, Muenster and Brie. So experiment with whatever you have or like and feel free to add more than the 2.5 ounces suggested in the recipe to suit your tastes- perhaps adding a bit more liquid to round it out if you do.
Reheating. In testing, the Panera Mac & Cheese had an otherworldly ability to stay creamy when reheated- but not to worry, if you have to reheat leftover Spawn and it looks a little dry (but, really, why would there be leftovers), a tablespoons of luscious liquid stirred in before heating up will get it all back to nice and creamy.
Panera Rant. In past posts, I’ve mentioned Gramp’s epic letters of complaints back in the day, so I will continue to honor his memory in this way with a few words about Panera.
A while back, I picked up my dinner order from Panera, getting home only to find one of the dinners ordered missing. Of course I immediately called the Panera manager to share the dismay, which only led to more dismay once he insisted the best he could do for the missing meal was a refund or replacement. Nothing for the inconvenience of feeding three people with two dinners. Nothing for the inconveniences of having to drive back (a 40 minute round trip, but who’s counting- I am!) just to break even. Of course, even then I wouldn’t break even, as any Dad would be quick to point out- loss of time, cost of gas and vehicle wear and tear. to name a few of the additional costs to claim the refund or replacement.
Sure, I’m exaggerating, a bit about the loss, as I do about the 5 miles I had to walk to and from school when I was a kid- uphill in both directions- but come on- not even a complimentary cookie? Apparently not and I haven’t been to a Panera’s since. I figure this has costed Panera the profit on at least 20 visits and counting- petty, perhaps, but I am my father’s son.
I have no such issues with Kraft- every time I’ve opened up one of its blue mac and cheese boxes, it’s always had noodles and a powered sauce packet without fail.
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