Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Something festive for the holidays: Macaroni and Cheese Cake

By Suzy Gruyere

My birthday was last week, and as you might imagine, I was given numerous macaroni and cheese related gifts. Sort of like when I was ten and expressed the slightest interest in unicorns, and then was given unicorn stuff for every gift-giving occasion for the next twelve years. Hey, at least I don’t have to dust mac and cheese.

Among the birthday gift cookbooks is this odd little tome, 101 Things To Do With Mac & Cheese by Toni Patrick. Every one of the 101 recipes calls for a box of macaroni and cheese – yes, the Dreaded Blue Box! Patrick cheats on a few recipes by only using the noodles, but the vast majority also use the cheez powder packet along with fresh ingredients, sometimes even including actual cheese.

I flipped through the cookbook quickly, expecting to curl my lip in disgust approximately 99 times, but I must admit that I dogeared at least a dozen recipes to try ASAP – sounds like it’s time for a Costco run to procure the giant brick o’ Blue Boxes. And honestly, after the holiday orgy of cooking and spending, I tend toward low-budget eating in January anyway, so this book will help add some variety to my self-imposed program of moderation. The recipes include soups, mac salads and hot macs of the stovetop and casserole variety, as well as a few surprises. The obvious enhancements are all here – bacon, pesto, breadcrumbs – and there are some unexpected flavor profiles in the mix too – the ones that spring to mind are curry powder and, I kid you not, Dr Pepper.

I decided to start with the oddest recipe, Macaroni Cake. Yup. A mac and cheese dessert. To be fair, it’s not a traditional cake in that it does not contain any flour or leavening. It’s more like a crustless macaroni pie. It actually reminded me of noodle kugel except that the cheez powder made it fluorescent orange.

And here’s the really surprising part: I liked it. I liked it so much I’ve already cooked it a second time!

The recipe is very easy to prepare. You just boil the noodles and put them in a greased baking dish, mix together everything else (including the cheez packet, come on, be a sport!) and pour it on top of the noodles, then bake. An hour later: cake! Ish.

The recipe below is my adaptation of Patrick’s original. I decreased the sugar (she uses 1 cup) and added lemon zest to brighten the flavors. Next time I’ll cook it in a round cake pan and crown it with a dusting of powdered sugar so it’s a little prettier and more cake-ish-looking. And the time after that, I’ll bust out some orange extract and zest, or cocoa powder and espresso, or any number of other flavorings...
I think that may be the best thing about this cookbook: Since its premise is to play around with a boring box mix, it felt natural to use this recipe as a jumping-off point for further experimentation in a way that would be too scary when dealing with Serious Recipes from Serious Chefs.

So we’re off to a promising start with 101 Things To Do With Mac & Cheese. I love that the book is spiral bound so it lays open flat, and the outside is protected by plastic covers in case things get messy. There’s a wide variety of add-ins sure to please any palate (ones that can tolerate the Blue Box to begin with, I guess). And you can find boxed mac on sale for way under a buck, so trying these recipes will cost a lot less than making typical mac and cheese. Here’s hoping the other 100 recipes yield more winners.

Macaroni Cake
Adapted from 101 Things To Do With Mac & Cheese by Toni Patrick

1 box macaroni and cheese mix
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon anise extract
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
6 eggs
8 oz Ricotta cheese**

**Note: This photo depicts an error, so don’t be misled. I dumped the entire 15 oz tub of Ricotta into the bowl before realizing my mistake. That’s why I made a second Macaroni Cake immediately – I already had half a pound of spare Ricotta that had traces of egg on it. Good thing I liked this dish! Also, the math whizzes reading this will note that a 15 oz tub of Ricotta could, at best, be split into two 7.5 oz portions. Relax, it’ll work fine.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray or butter a 9x9 baking pan and set aside.

Boil macaroni in lightly salted water for about 5 minutes, until pasta is al dente. Drain.

Beat remaining ingredients, including the packet of cheez powder, until blended.

Place cooked macaroni in prepared baking dish and pour egg mixture over pasta, making sure the noodles are completely covered.

Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes. Allow cake to cool before serving.


Emily Malloy said...

How awesome is this?!?!?!

Totally going to try this. Thanks for sharing!

Kathleen said...

This is a great blog dedicated to one of my favorite foods!