Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Freezer Burn Part 1: The "Best" and "Worst" Frozen Mac and Cheese

by Hilary Havarti

My favorite childhood macaroni and cheese came straight from the freezer section; manufactured by the now defunct Morton Frozen Foods. Mom, always kind of a health nut, never purchased junky "kid food." No Skippy peanut butter for us. Our flavorless spread came from the do-it-yourself peanut grinder at the health food store. Froot Loops? In my dreams. Coca Cola? Only when we visited Dad. (Insert violins.) Yet for some reason, frozen entrées got an occasional pass. This junk food deprivation may have attributed to my revisionist memory of Morton's Mac and Cheese being one of the greatest things I ever ate. Packaged in a mini aluminum pie pan, it was the perfect kid's sized portion. I always requested extra cook time to achieve a crispy brown top, natch. Hey, at least I'm consistent.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a friend looking for a recommendation for the "best" frozen mac and cheese. Truth be told, I do not make a habit of purchasing frozen mac -- or meals for that matter -- however, my curiosity got the better of me. Searching the freezer section at Von's, I confirmed my suspicions that Morton's had gone the way of my other childhood faves like the "Reggie" (Reggie Jackson) Candy Bar. Round in shape (inspired by a baseball, perhaps?) it had a rich caramel center, peanuts and a milk chocolate coating, kind of like a Snickers bar if you sat on it and took out the nougat. Yum!

 And The Marathon Bar with its braided caramel covered in chocolate, "It's so satisfying."  Yes, people, I am that old.

But back to the business at hand, frozen macaroni and cheese. The results are in and all I can say is, if you have time, make macaroni and cheese from scratch and freeze the extras. It'll be way better than anything pre-made with the exception of Beecher's. And now, part 1 of a 2 part review.

Trader Joe's Mac'n Cheese vs. Amy's Macaroni and Cheese made with Organic Pasta.

TJ's Mac 'n Cheese

When I opened the box, I found the plain noodles segregated from the cheese sauce in layers; noodles on the bottom, cheese sauce scooped unevenly on top. I think all ingredients should be pre-mixed together in the spirit of harmony but perhaps this method contributes to the cooking chemistry. The requested cook time of 20-25 minutes was not enough time. I ended up cooking it for 45 minutes to get it good and hot and achieve a crispy top. After 25 minutes, I stirred the separated noodles and cheese together and put it back in the oven for another 20 minutes. The Verdict: This one tasted the most like my cobwebby childhood memory of Morton's. The cheddar gave it a nice tang and the use of Gouda, Swiss and Havarti made this preparation the most "gourmet" of the bunch. It was a little greasy due to the cheddar but overall, I'd recommend this version in a pinch. Suzy G thought it had good stretchiness and decent flavor, but she agrees that you have to bake it for twice as long as the box suggests.

Amy's Macaroni and Cheese made with Organic Pasta.

Seduced by the mere mention of "organic pasta," I had high hopes for Amy's brand mac and cheese. But alas, it didn't live up to the glamour of its high falutin' ingredients. After the 35 minutes suggested bake time, the cheese top had a slightly brown crisp and appeared cooked all the way through. Thumbs up for correct cook times! Things still seemed promising until I took a bite. The noodle texture can only be described as overcooked and gummy, like gummy bear-gummy. Perhaps TJ's separates the noodles and cheese to keep the noodles firm. Amy's sauce, albeit trés creamy, tasted salty and lacked any recognizable cheddar cheese flavor. It didn't taste processed, though, a real feat for frozen fare. Overall, this version reminded me of stove top mac rather than baked. I can't recommend it but it wasn't sucky.

A speaking of sucky, stayed tuned for Michelina vs. Stouffers.


Anonymous said...

Mmmmm, Morton's Macaroni & Cheese, also my favorite childhood meal... Thanks for testing and posting the results re: Trader Joe's version. I'm holding high hopes for it!

Eric Mantel said...

I also was a big fan of Morton's frozen macaroni & cheese as a kid in the mid 1970's.It came in a silver aluminum tray as all TV dinners did back then; microwaves didn't become common until the early 1980's! They made the perfect blend of cheese & I too liked to overcook it to get that rich burnt crust on top! Back around 1977 I made a usual weekend TV dinner of this & for some reason it didn't taste right. I tried a few more spoonfuls from different ends of the tray & it absolutely tasted like crap so I tossed it out. I figured that I had gotten a bad one & a week later when I revisited my local supermarket, I reached all the way in the back of the refrigerator to grab a bunch of "good packages" that definately were fully frozen & not ever thawed out & refrozen. My parents were away that weekend, so my sister & I invited a bunch of friends to hang out & party with us. When we all got the "munchies" later, I threw a few Morton's frozen macaroni & cheese dinners in the oven for my guests & myself. When I tasted it I thought "not again" as it really tasted like crap again! I thought it was just me & then my friends started yelling at me, "Hey Eric, what are you trying to do? Poison us?" Then I confirmed that the product had changed..... for the WORSE!!! We all tossed the TV dinners in the trash & went for the Elli's frozen pizza. The next day, I wrote a letter to Morton's ATTENTION: CONSUMER AFFAIRS & told them of how I used their product for years as a loyal customer & how the last couple of packages really tasted like crap & that they should check into their package processing plant to see what is causing the problem. I also enclosed my cash register receipt with the Morton's products circled & the end panels of the boxes enclosed (There were no UPCs in those days; they didn't appear until 1983) & asked for either a refund or a couple of "FREE PRODUCT COUPONS"! Would you believe that Morton's totally IGNORED MY REQUESTS!!! Never heard from them; they didn't give a shit about their product & guess what? A few months later they were OUT OF BUSINESS!!! Not a single product on the groceries freezer shelves!!! I guess they knew that they were going out of business & just didn't give a shit about their customers any more so they were eliminating ingredients & making a sub par quality product!!! It tasted horrible!!! They must have known; it must have been deliberate-their quality control department couldn't even respond to a teenager's questions about a product of theirs that really made me sick!!! Absolutely disgusting!!!

PhD said...

Stuffers Mac and cheese is excellent and is the closest taste to Morton's in the tin. When microwaves came out Morton's changed to a tan dish that made the food taste like crap. Stuffers is good and Pinterest has a copycat recipe that's good and a little healthier.

Hilary Havarti said...

Eric - Thanks for sharing your story. I applaud your attempt to reach out to Morton's and let them know the product quality had lapsed. You tried! Too bad they didn't listen. I guess we'll just have remember the good and gooey times.