My favorite dish in the world is Mac & Cheese, especially in Green Corn Moon (September) when the leaves begin to turn brilliant shades of coral, crimson, and gold, and the shortening days begin and end with a decided chill in the air.
But not just any Mac & Cheese, mind you. It must be English-style with a combination of sharp, aged farmhouse cheddar and two or more additional cheeses, at least one of which must be an ooey-gooey melting cheese. It must contain onions and garlic, sautéed to melting tenderness, a perfect, creamy béchamel sauce, and a generous topping of toasted breadcrumbs. The pasta must be fairly short and narrow with a hole in the middle to hold the sauce; in other words, tubular. I prefer smooth or ridged Pennette, Tortiglionne, or uncurved Maccheroni, rather than the more pedestrian elbow macaroni, which, due to no fault of its own, is indelibly associated in my mind with the blue box.
That shouldn't be too difficult, you say? Ha! I forgot to mention that all elements must be in pleasing proportion to one another. Not too much or too little cheese, pasta, or sauce. Not so dry that you cannot see any sauce. Not so much sauce that you have to feel around with your fork to find the pasta. Baked, not stirred together quickly on the stovetop. Not too rich. Not too salty. Also, you must be able to eat an entire dinner-size serving and really have to restrain yourself from having "just a little more." Believe me, folks, the perfect Mac & Cheese is no small feat. If you master this dish, you have achieved something significant as a cook.
Which brings me to the 2008 Tillamook Macaroni & Cheese Recipe Contest. Last year, close to 1,000 cooks submitted their treasured macaroni and cheese recipes. There were regional cook-offs in six cities. The Portland regional cook-off was at Noble Rot restaurant (which I helped judge); the Grand Finale cook-off was also in Portland, at Hotel Lucia. Lorie Roach of Mississippi was the grand prize winner with her Jumbo Shell Pasta Stuffed with Baby White Cheddar and Chicken.
Unfortunately, you already missed the July 28th deadline for this year's recipe submissions. (The final national competition is scheduled for October 23rd in Portland, Oregon.) However, this gives you a full year to perfect your recipe for next year's contest.
Okay, we're going to get to see what good cooks across the nation come up with on October 23rd. In the meanwhile, I was inspired last year by all the hoopla and decided to run around Portland, Seattle, and Boston and chow down on all the restaurant Mac & Cheese that I could find. (This post was already underway whern I serendipitously bumped into Ashley Sherrick, who is on the PR team for the Tillamook event, at Stella's one afternoon while looking for glam flip flops and was invited on the spot to be one of the judges for the Portland regional competition.) Excessive indulgence has not ended my fascination, however, so the search continues. (Watch for periodic updates.)
Here, then, are eleven of the most noteworthy results thus far, in no particular order. The intention was to strike a balance between fancy-schmancy and let's-eat-already venues. You can also want to check out the recipe for LunaCafe's OtherWorldly Mac & Cheese.
Note I tried several Mac & Cheese renditions that didn't make it into the following list. If I don't relish eating it again, it's not listed here. The Mac & Cheese renditions that are listed below, however, I heartily applaud.
Olea (Portland, Pearl district)
We were passing by Olea one night last fall intending to eat on NW 23rd when something made me stop to review their menu. I spied the Mac & Cheese, and we changed our dinner plans on the spot. This version has a perfect blend of intriguing cheeses, along with applewood-smoked bacon, which was a new direction for me. All I can think of to say here is OH MY GAWD! They have since taken this dish off the menu, but I will call the chef to see if he might graciously add it back as a special for the fall season at least.
Update 9/29/08: The chef who created this mac & cheese, Aaron Barnett, is now head chef at 23 Hoyt, and he has taken the recipe with him. Stay tuned for that review.
Heathman (Portland, Downtown)
This jewel is almost hidden in the extensive and delectable (also fabulously affordable during happy hour) bar menu. It's listed simply as Mac & Cheese, with no other descriptors. Don't let this understatement keep you from ordering the dish though. It's a luscious combination of Italian Fontina Val d"Aosta cheese blended with a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano in a very creamy sauce, enrobing ridged penne pasta, topped with a bare sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs.
Noble Rot (Portland, Laurelhurst)
The presentation here is classic Northwest (unpretentious, pure, simple) and lip-smacking appetizing. This is not an eat-it-once-never-think-about-it-again Mac & Cheese. All that oozing, bubbling cheese, baked and sticking to the dish, plus a beautiful toasted breadcrumb topping. Noble Rot uses Tillamook extra sharp cheddar, which is aged for two years, so this version is not for cheese wimps.
Serratto (Portland, NW district)
You can readily see that I ate half of this dish before I remembered to take the picture. No use trying to pretend I intended it this way. 🙂 I sat at the lovely bar, savoring some delicious book, with a glass of Syrah and this Euro-style, three-cheese Mac & Cheese. Divine!
Pastini Pastaria (Portland, NW district)
This moderately-priced pasta emporium does a few (at least) pasta dishes as well as some restaurants that charge twice the price. (This is one of them. Another is the Pasta Carbonara.). This Mac & Cheese rendition didn't photograph particularly well, but don't let that deter you from running over to Pastini and ordering this one night soon. Eat it slowly and savor the excellent medley of cheeses.
Jo Bar (Portland, NW district)
Does this Mac & Cheese look stunning or what? And it tastes as good as it looks. Garganelli pasta tossed with wild mushrooms, leeks, gorgonzola and fontina, and baked in the wonderful wood oven. I loved every delicious bite!
Fratelli (Portland, Pearl district)
A rich, creamy Italian-style (no cheddar) Mac & Cheese with toasted hazelnuts (nice touch) and lots of freshly ground black pepper. This was a fall special on the menu last year.
Café Venus (Seattle, Eastlake)
This funky little joint turns out a seriously good Mac & Cheese. They combine al dente penne, Tillamook cheddar, Romano, and a saffron cream sauce with lots of garlic. Interesting and yummy!
P.S. I applaud earnest, heart-felt cafes like this one, which seem to be disappearing. Rock on Café Venus!
Veil (Seattle, East Lower Queen Anne)
Teensy, weensy portion of decadently rich, handmade pasta enrobed in lobster-infused crème fraîche sauce with a touch of fresh tarragon. Tasty, for sure, but is it Mac & Cheese?
Beecher's Handmade Cheese (Seattle, Pike Place Market)
This to-go carton of Mac & Cheese never makes it home uneaten. To be safe, I took the picture in the shop. Two styles: traditional and spicy. Lush, gooey, intensely cheesy; I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.
Stephanie's (Boston, Newberry St.)
There I was, strolling alone on Newbury street in Boston (MauiJim was attending a web design seminar in Cambridge) on a beautiful fall day, making my way to the park to feed the chipmunks the peanuts stashed in my bag, when the thought occurred, "Hey, what about my lunch?" And as if on cue, there was Stephanie's, just opening their doors for the lunch crowd already lining up on the sidewalk. The Mac & Cheese combines three rich cheeses, a super creamy sauce, and toasted bread crumb topping. Mighty good. (The chipmunks went berserk for the peanuts. I was mobbed!)
Give Us More
To check the continuously updated list of Mac & Cheese renditions that we hope to sample for next year's roundup and those that have already sailed into the best-of-the-best circle, click Quintessential Mac & Cheese (under the Dining tab for future reference).
Look for Quintessential Mac & Cheese, Part 2 in October, which will feature the recipe for LunaCafe OtherWorldly Mac & Cheese.