Pasta

Boxed Macaroni & Cheese: The Winner!

Last year, we decided to test various brands of boxed macaroni and cheese in order to find out which one was best. Obviously, none of these can compare to homemade mac ‘n cheese, but on a busy weeknight, who’s got time for that? The boxed stuff has always been about convenience. You don’t go to McDonald’s and dream of the prime rib you could have had, and when you reach for a box of mac ‘n cheese quit thinkin’ about how creamy, delicious and far superior homemade is. You’ll drive yourself crazy doing that. mac attack

Round One pitted the trusty standby in the familiar blue box and favorite of kids everywhere, Kraft, against a young upstart, Trader Joe’s. The new kid on the block pulled off the upset, with TJ’s mac ‘n cheese narrowly beating out Kraft.

In Round Two, we tried out two organic brands, Annie’s and Horizon. That one wasn’t close: Horizon was easily the unanimous favorite, winning the hearts and minds of all three judges with its creamier and cheesier taste and texture. Since that challenge, Horizon has become our new household favorite.

But is it good enough to best Trader Joe’s?

This evening, we prepared a box of each. Tried a spoonful. And declared a winner.

This was a split decision, and once again came as a surprise. By a two-to-one margin, we can now officially declare the best boxed macaroni & cheese is…

Trader Joe's: It's simply the best.

Trader Joe’s: the best boxed mac ‘n cheese

Trader Joe’s!

Honestly, I was expecting it to be Horizon. But my daughter and I both thought the Trader Joe’s was much tastier. Must be that Wisconsin Cheddar! To me, TJ’s tasted a little sharper and was more assertive, giving the mac ‘n cheese a nice little zing. It’s true that TJ’s doesn’t mix quite as well – both times we ended up with little clumps of cheese – but I like to think that’s proof of a less-processed product, and a great metaphor for life: it isn’t perfect, and not every bit of cheese will melt ideally. But in the end, it’s your enjoyment that really matters. Tara, who was the lone Kraft fan in the first challenge, preferred Horizon. But majority rules, and the new king of the boxed macaroni & cheese empire is Trader Joe’s.

This was fun. If you have any suggestions for future challenges, let us know!

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Face Off: Boxed Macaroni & Cheese (Part II)

Some time ago – six months, to be exact – we announced a bracket-style boxed macaroni and cheese face-off. “This is something that will take awhile,” we warned, so if nothing else we were true to our word. I just didn’t expect half a year to pass before we got to round 2.

Oops.

The winner of the first challenge, in case you don’t remember, was Trader Joe’s, by a vote of 2-1. Sorry, Kraft. In the end, you were too overly processed.

In the second round, we pitted two organic contenders: Annie’s and Horizon.

 

Mac1

In the interest of fairness, we chose the same flavor, as well. Each box is labeled “classic” and “mild cheddar.” And they both feature animals – Annie’s has a rabbit, Horizon’s got a flying cow. Or maybe he’s leaping. Probably trying to get away from the butcher, but we can pretend otherwise.

Both brands advertise no artificial flavors or preservatives. Horizon goes a step further and touts no artificial colors, while Annie’s proclaims there are “no synthetic colors.” Instead, they use annatto – derived from the seed of the achiote plant – for coloring. This is not an uncommon practice; annatto has long been used to add orange coloring to many cheeses, dairy spreads, baked goods, and snack foods. It beats the food dyes used by some manufacturers (that would be you, Kraft), so it’s not a knack against Annie’s, though annatto has been linked to food allergies in some people.

The color disparity was immediately evident when we emptied the “cheese packets” into each pot. Annie’s was bright orange, while Horizon’s was perfectly white. Once the milk and butter were added, however, the Horizon mac ‘n cheese magically turned orange.

Whoa.

Like the first time, we prepared both boxes exactly the same, and added no extra seasonings. Here’s what they looked like, freshly dished up:

Mac2
The only discernible difference is, the Annie’s had some unappealing clumps of cheese that would not dissolve. This was also the case with the Trader Joe’s brand, but that one was declared the winner, so I was not concerned about this. It all comes down to flavor anyway. And this time, the results were unanimous: all three of us chose the same brand, and to be honest, it wasn’t even close. The winner of the second round?

Horizon.

We thought it was creamier and had a much cheesier flavor than Annie’s, which was pretty bland.

So, it’s on to the final round: Trader Joe’s v. Horizon. All that’s left in the boxed category are various store or generic brands, and we really don’t expect much from those. We’ll let these two national brands duke it out for bragging rights.

And this time, we won’t wait another six months. I promise!

 

 

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Face Off: Boxed Macaroni & Cheese (Part 1)

If you’re like us, you grew up eating Kraft macaroni & cheese. (Actually, if you’re like us, you still eat Kraft macaroni & cheese). The little blue box is ubiquitous with childhood, much like Saturday morning cartoons and Big Wheels. But Kraft is hardly the only boxed mac ‘n cheese on the market, and we began wondering how it would stack up against other brands. So we’ve decided to find out! We’ll have a bracket-style challenge pitting two competing brands against one another, with the winner of each round advancing in order to square off for the title of Best Boxed Macaroni & Cheese. This is something that will take awhile, so don’t look for a winner on Thursday. unnamed

Our first two contenders: Kraft v. Trader Joe’s.

The packaging alone sets Trader Joe’s apart from its better-known competitor. “Wisconsin Cheddar,” it proclaims, front and center. Kraft makes no such similar claim. The big difference is in the ingredients: the Trader Joe’s brand uses annatto for natural coloring, as opposed to Kraft’s use of yellow dye (something they have come under fire for). The safety of food coloring is questionable at best. Apparently they are gradually phasing out this additive, but the box we picked up still listed it as an ingredient. Time will tell how long it takes the company to make good on its promise.

Regardless of the use of colored dyes, we’re not here to debate the merits of the ingredients. Each brand’s offering contains plenty of hard-to-pronounce preservatives, after all. We’re reviewing on taste – and even then, we’re not expecting to be blown away.

If you’re looking for authentic macaroni & cheese, you won’t find it in a box, regardless of the brand.

Instead, it’s a quick and convenient side dish when you don’t feel like going to the trouble of grating cheese, making a casserole, etc.

In the interest of fairness, we agreed to follow the exact instructions on each box, rather than doctoring up the preparation. The Kraft calls for milk and butter, while the Trader Joe’s requires only milk (though it is suggested you add 2 tablespoons of butter for a richer, creamier flavor). Both contain the requisite pouches of cheese powder.

unnamed

Kraft cooked up perfectly, without fail. The Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, contained clumps of orange cheese that no amount of stirring would dissolve. We finally did add butter, and that helped a little, but we couldn’t get rid of every last bit of cheese like we’d hoped. This made it less than appealing from a visual standpoint. Before even taking a bite, Kraft had the edge.

And after taking a bite? That’s where the difference of opinions settled in. The Kraft was predictably rich and creamy, with its distinctive cheese-like flavor. Trader Joe’s was less gummy, and had a more natural cheese flavor. Tara liked Kraft the best. At first I agreed with her, but I think that was a case of familiarity winning out initially. The more I ate of both, the more I liked Trader Joe’s version, despite a few remaining undissolved flecks of cheese powder. To me, it tasted more “real,” and made every corresponding bite of Kraft taste more processed.

Unfortunately, we ended in a stalemate. Like a hung jury, we were deadlocked. And then my daughter stepped in, and said she preferred Trader Joe’s, as well. So, there you have it. Round 1 goes to Trader Joe’s, though it was really close.

Stay tuned for the next face off, coming soon.

Trader Joe's on the left, Kraft on the right.

Trader Joe’s on the left, Kraft on the right.

 

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Chicken Paprikas

Our first challenge of the new year coincides with my dad’s birthday. Our family tradition is for my mom to make chicken paprikas to celebrate the big day. It’s always a special occasion, because she makes it exactly once a year. Why? As delicious as it is, it’s not the healthiest dish in the world. Her recipe calls for a dozen eggs, plus sour cream, and butter…definitely not a low-calorie or low-fat meal.

But absolutely delicious.

Chicken paprikas is a traditional Hungarian stew that usually incorporates chicken, onions, butter, paprika, and sour cream. Many recipes also call for tomatoes and green bell peppers, though my mom has always left these ingredients out. My family has Hungarian roots, and this recipe has been passed down through the generations, so I have no doubt about its authenticity. (Or its flavor: it’s mouth-wateringly good). Chicken paprikas (pronounced, and sometimes spelled, paprikash) is traditionally served with dumplings. We use old-fashioned metal dumpling makers to make ours.

My dumpling maker. This once belonged to my grandmother.

My dumpling maker. This once belonged to my grandmother.

True to its name, the most important ingredient is paprika. And it’s got to be Hungarian paprika – a nice combination of sweet and pungent. I never buy any other type. (Shout out to my ancestors!).

Recipes such as this were meant to be passed down. I like to think my grandkids’ grandkids will be enjoying this same dish 50 years from now. It’s not particularly complicated to make, but it is time-consuming. My lone attempt, about ten years ago, resulted in dumplings that were thinner and not quite as flavorful as my mom’s. So for this food challenge, Tara wanted to see if she could replicate my family’s famous chicken paprikas recipe.

How’d she do? Let’s hear it from her!

Well, according to everyone’s slurping and munching at the dinner table, I did pretty well.

I absolutely adore my mother-in-law and was looking forward to having her teach me this family dish.  I chopped onions while she threw butter into the pots.  I seasoned the chicken thighs and legs while she told me not to use too much pepper.  And then I beat the dozen eggs and too slowly added flour until the dumpling batter reached the right consistency; halfway between pancake batter and a quick bread dough. She poured the batter while I cranked the dumpling maker.  

*insert dirty joke here*

Good job, Mrs. P!

Good job, Mrs. P!

The dumplings (similar to spaetzel) cooked in boiling water and then were later added to the sauce. The sauce came together quickly after removing the stewed chicken and straining the onions.  The reserved cooking juices were combined with equal parts sour cream and water…and another egg.  The dumplings were added to the sauce and brought to a boil.  

Yes, labor intensive, but not as bad as I thought it would be.  Not anymore so than my mom’s Chicken ‘n Noodles or Chicken Chimichangas. The flavor is wonderful and definitely worth all the hard work.  The real test will be when I make it without Carol’s guiding hand.  I ‘m looking forward to getting the recipe down pat, and passing it on to younger generations!

We all agreed, the paprikas turned out fantastic. And trust me, we’re tough critics when it comes to this dish! Job well done, Tara. You singlehandedly – and easily – accomplished the first of this year’s food challenges: recreating a favorite family recipe.

On to the next!

Chicken Paprikas

Chicken Paprikas

Categories: Pasta, Poultry | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

345/365: National Noodle Ring Day

Even the most geometrically challenged will enjoy today’s food holiday, so long as they like pasta. December 11 is National Noodle Ring Day!

I was thinking noodle rings referred to those cans of miniature ring-shaped pasta otherwise known as Spaghetti-Os. But actually, they refer to a literal ring, or circle, of noodles. This dish, popular in the middle of the 20th century, was made by mixing noodles with ingredients such as eggs, ketchup, worcestershire sauce, and cheese, and putting the ingredients into a ring mold to bake. When it’s finished the dish is inverted, and the center can be filled with vegetables or main dishes. Creamed chicken was particularly popular. There were lots of variations, with some pretty outlandish ingredients. Who buys pimentos anymore? This recipe has pretty much disappeared from modern cookbooks, probably because serving a dinner shaped like a tire isn’t as appealing as it once was.noodlering

As much as I love all things retro, there is a reason certain vintage recipes have fallen out of favor, and that most likely has to do with the fact that they are what we might refer to as “disgusting” by modern culinary standards. Take this recipe, for instance. I have no idea what “dry” American cheese is, but do I really want to find out? No.

So, we improvised. We still made a noodle ring, but used Tara’s tuna noodle casserole recipe. And you know what? This turned out delicious!

It was probably the crumbled Lay’s potato chips she sprinkles on top.

National Noodle Ring Day

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290/365: National Four Prunes Day/National Pasta Day*

You can count on a good meal if you celebrate today’s food holiday. October 17 is National Four Prunes Day!

What an odd holiday this one is. Why four prunes? Why not three or five? Why not Eat A Prune? We’ve always been very specific in the rules of this challenge, stating that we need only take a single bite in order for it to count (though most times we eat the whole thing). But if we have to eat four prunes, does that mean we’re stuck with four bites? Or do we literally have to eat four prunes each? Or four prunes together? To simplify matters we considered celebrating the other food holiday today, National Pasta Day. But we just had a National Noodle Day, so…

(As it turns out, we ended up celebrating both food holidays today. Tara and I met up for lunch at The Old Spaghetti Factory. She got ravioli, I ordered spaghetti with Italian sausage. But the focus of the blog today is on prunes).

Actually, further research shows the reason for four prunes. As this blog post (and other scientific articles) states, doctors recommend eating four prunes a day to slow the aging process of the body and brain. Ahh. I’m all about living longer, so bring on the prunes!

Prunes get a bad rap due to their high fiber content. In other words, they make you poop! Because of this, they have been rebranded “dried plums” in recent years, which makes sense seeing that they are dried plums. But I think this is silly. There’s nothing wrong with the name prune, and if it’s associated with constipation relief, so be it. They are considered nutritional superstars, and are high in antioxidants, vitamin A, potassium, and iron. Prunes are native to Western Asia, but eventually spread through Europe and the Balkan Islands. They were introduced to North America by Louis Pellier, a Frenchman whose mining operation during the Gold Rush of 1848 was a bust. After finding no gold in them thar hills, Pellier purchased a plot of farmland in the Santa Clara Valley and planted plum trees in 1856. The plum industry took off, and by the mid 1880s, Pellier and others were looking for ways to expand business. Dried plums were a hit in Europe and were being imported at the rate of 22,000 tons a year, so focus shifted to growing them here. And the rest is high fiber history.

I love prunes. In school, my classmates would always give me their stewed prunes at lunch. I could never figure out why they’d pass on such a delicious and sweet part of the meal! I also enjoyed drinking prune juice because I liked the flavor. I guess I’m odd that way. The bottom line is, celebrating this holiday was a breeze. For me, anyway. I had my four prunes for breakfast. Tara was less enthused, but also took part. She liked them more than she thought she would.

National 4 Prunes Day

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281/365: National Pierogi Day*

The food of honor today is very filling, but you’ll still Polish off your plate. October 8 is National Pierogi Day!

It’s also National Fluffernutter Day, and while that’s a fun word to say out loud – go ahead, do it – the combination of peanut butter and marshmallow creme is much too sweet for my palate. I’d prefer to honor my heritage (Eastern European) instead, so we decided to celebrate the lowly pierogi.

I say lowly because the pierogi – a dumpling traditionally stuffed with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, ground meat, cheese, or fruit, that is first boiled and then either fried or baked – was long considered a peasant dish. Similar to Russian pelmini, pierogi (also known as perogi, pyrogy, perogie, perogy, pirohi, piroghi, pirogi, pirogen, pierogy,pirohy, pyrogie, and pyrohy) originated in Poland in the 13th century as an answer to Italy’s ravioli, and were popular with Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, and Ukrainians. Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th century brought their favorite pierogi recipes to America, and remain especially popular in the Northeastern states. They became a staple of ethnic church fundraisers following World War II, and began appearing in the frozen food aisles of supermarkets in the 1960s. To this day, the Pittsburgh Pirates feature a costumed Great Pierogi Race during all home games featuring contestants dressed in pierogi costumes: Jalapeño Hannah, Cheese Chester, Sauerkraut Saul, and Oliver Onion. Seriously, folks. I am not making this up.

Pierogi are easy to come by around here, as there is a large local Eastern European population in and around the Portland metropolitan area. But since our neighborhood European market was closed when we stopped by, we ended up picking up a box of frozen Mrs. T’s. Potato and cheddar pierogies, to be exact. They made a tasty appetizer for tonight’s dinner.

National Pierogi Day

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279/365: National Noodle Day

Generations both pasta and present have had a hankering for today’s celebrated food. October 6 is National Noodle Day!

Noodles are an ancient food dating back thousands of years: archaeologists recently unearthed a bowl along the Yellow River in China that contained 4000 year old preserved noodles. It was determined they were made from millet and formed by repeatedly stretching and pulling the dough by hand. The word is derived from the German nudel which, unfortunately, we have as yet been unable to translate. Noodles can be made from almost any type of dough, including wheat, rice, potato, maize, nut, and buckwheat. Once the dough is rolled flat, it is cut into a variety of shapes such as long, thin strips; bows; tubes; and pentagrams. They must be boiled in order to bring their texture back to life. Noodles are popular in many cultures around the world, particularly in Asian and Italian cuisine. Instant noodles were invented in 1958 and have revolutionized the ramen industry, bringing joy to starving college students everywhere.

With so many different varieties of noodles available, we had trouble narrowing down how best to celebrate today’s food holiday. We finally decided to go simple and pick up some fresh pasta from Pastaworks, a great Italian deli/grocery store (or as they call themselves, “European market”) on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland. We opted for freshly made rotini, since it was more of a “noodle” than, say, ravioli would have been. Paired with their marinara sauce and a baguette, we ended up with a quick and delicious meal!

National Noodle Day

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210/365: National Cheese Sacrifice Purchase Day/National Lasagna Day*

I don’t mean to be a pest, but this is one of the strangest food holidays of the year. July 29 is National Cheese Sacrifice Purchase Day. Umm…okay…

Even the name is a mouthful. What the heck does it mean?! Well, after a bit of research, it turns out that you are supposed to buy cheese today and “sacrifice” it by using it as bait on a mousetrap to rid your home of the pesky little rodents. There’s only one problem with that: we don’t have mice in the house. I could give credit to the cat for a vermin-free dwelling, but in all likelihood it’s probably got more to do with Tara’s extreme cleanliness. Fortunately, other people who have decided to celebrate this holiday have gotten creative with the rules, and I think they’ve got the right idea. (As an aside, even when I did have a mouse problem in my old house, cheese never worked – but peanut butter snared the suckers every time. Which means that National Peanut Butter Sacrifice Day can’t be too far off, right?). National Cheese Sacrifice Purchase Day

Suggestions for celebrating this holiday include sacrificing some of your money to buy an expensive type of cheese you wouldn’t normally purchase, or sacrifice your taste buds by trying a new cheese you’ve previously never had. You could sacrifice a piece of cheese to the fondue pot, or melt it down and make nachos. Or you could sacrifice cheese by not eating it at all…but the holiday specifically mentions purchasing it, so do cheese lovers sacrifice their fondness for the product today by not buying it?

This is one confusing holiday!

Fortunately, it’s also National Lasagna Day. This helped to solve our dilemma, and allowed us to knock out two food holidays in one day.

Lasagna is one of my all-time favorites. Growing up, my mom always let my brother and I choose whatever we wanted for dinner on our birthdays. Scott usually opted for pizza, while I went with lasagna. (Incidentally, my kids both like spaghetti on their birthdays. None of us are even remotely Italian. Go figure).

Our sacrificial cheese.

Our sacrificial cheese.

Actually, even though lasagna is closely associated with Italy, its true origin can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greeks were fond of laganon, a flat sheet of dough cut into strips. They also used a cooking pot known as a lasanum. When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, they “borrowed” (okay, stole) both ideas and turned them into lasagna, layering pasta, sauce, cheese, and savory ingredients into a casserole, and baking. European immigrants introduced the dish to the U.S., and the rest is multi-tiered history. If we didn’t have lasagna, we wouldn’t have Garfield, and the world would be a much darker place.

Tara has a great recipe for lasagna that isn’t baked, but rather, cooked in the crockpot. She takes uncooked noodles, layers them with sauce, meat, and cheese, and lets them cook all day. This turns out delicious every time! In fact, I once told her I liked the crockpot lasagna better than the regular version, and I don’t think she was too pleased to hear that after slaving over a “regular” pan. What can I say? It’s delicious!

So, we “sacrificed” shredded cheese to the crockpot gods, and ended up enjoying a hearty, delicious lasagna. Two for the price of one!

National Lasagna Day

Categories: Dairy, Pasta | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

79/365: National Ravioli Day

Today’s food holiday is a very fulfilling one: we honor one of my personal favorite types of pasta. It’s National Ravioli Day!

Ravioli is any filled or sealed pasta, so technically tortellini is a type of ravioli. Which means we’ve already celebrated this holiday! But ravioli are so good, I don’t mind doing it again. Wontons, pierogis, and dumplings are also variations of ravioli. Burritos are not, unless you make yours with pasta, which would be…hmm…actually, a brilliant idea! Ravioli are traditionally filled with either meat or cheese, and simmered in sauce or broth.

Haute cuisine to a kid!

Haute cuisine to a kid!

The earliest reference to ravioli is found in a manuscript by Tuscan merchant Francesco di Marco Datin, dated sometime in the 14th century. Francesco included a recipe for ravioli made with chopped blanched green herbs mixed with beaten egg and fresh cheese, and served with – this is the weird part – Newman’s Own Sock It To ‘Em Sockarooni pasta sauce. Oops, I mean, served in broth. That makes more sense! Actually, tomato-based sauces didn’t even exist in Italy for another couple of centuries, when they were imported from the New World. Italian cuisine without tomato sauce? That’s hard to fathom. Ravioli are traditionally made at home and stuffed with ingredients like ricotta, spinach, and nutmeg, but they are also prepackaged for lazy-ass people who can’t roll out pasta dough convenience. The first canned ravioli was produced during World War I, and let’s face it, what kid hasn’t enjoyed a bowl of Chef Boyardee Ravioli while growing up? In fact, Tara professes a fondness for this stuff even today.

Fortunately, we did not run out and heat up a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli for today’s challenge, though we also didn’t make our own fresh pasta from scratch (though that is a goal of mine). We were at Costco over the weekend, and picked up a package of Jarlsberg & Portobello Mushroom ravioli, so I cooked those up for lunch, and served them with a mushroom alfredo sauce. Good stuff!

Ravioli

Categories: Pasta | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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