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A Better Box of Mac & Cheese

by Tamia Nelson

Boxed macaroni and cheese makes a memorable camp dinner - for all the wrong reasons. But not all macaroni cheese meals are equally bad. This week, Tamia reports on one brand that breaks the mold.

April 18, 2017

Article by Tamia NelsonLet's face it: By reputation, boxed macaroni and cheese is a meal of last resort, a glutinous melange of limp pasta coated in something that has the texture and appearance of white glue. (This resemblance is not entirely coincidental. Casein glue and cheese are kissing cousins.) And the reality of most macaroni cheese meals often lives up - or down - to their reputation. But to give the devil his due, macaroni cheese is also filling, reasonably calorie-dense, easy to prepare, and cheap. It travels well, too. Which is why it has a place on many paddlers' menus. Including mine.

Which doesn't change the fact that there's an element of penance in sitting down to a such a meal. Even if hunger is the best of sauces, you have to be mighty hungry indeed to elevate the typical HyperMart macaroni and cheese to the level of a gourmet treat. Yet there are exceptions, and I've just discovered one:

ANNIE'S SHELLS & REAL AGED CHEDDAR MACARONI & CHEESE

It was serendipity, really. For some months now, Farwell has been in and out of far-distant surgical clinics, on the off chance that something could be done to lift the clouds obscuring his vision. And every such pilgrimage has entailed overnight stays. Thrown on our own resources in strange cities, and compelled to watch every penny, we've often fallen back on meals prepared in motel rooms, where the cooking facilities were limited to a microwave and a coffee maker. The good news? It was worth it. Farwell no longer walks into closed doors. Better yet, given half a chance (and a favorable slant of light), he can even distinguish a chipmunk from a chickadee with a high likelihood of success.

Anyway, on the last of our sojourns among the temples and palaces of modern medicine, I found myself hurrying down the endless aisles of a HyperMart several times larger than a zeppelin hanger, pausing just long enough to grab a box of macaroni and cheese before scurrying off to make a quick supper for the two of us. I expected that the meal would be filling and easy to prepare, but never, in my most optimistic moments, did I imagine it would be tasty.

I was wrong. The box I'd grabbed was Annie's Real Aged Cheddar, and much to my surprise, the promise implicit in the "enlarged to show detail" photo on the package was fulfilled: Once out of the box and on the table, the stuff actually looked good. More importantly, it tasted good. It seemed that when Bernie - his "rabbit of approval" can be found on every Annie's product - said something was OK, it really was.


Bunny Meets Bernie - Tamia Nelson Photo


Good old Bernie. But I wasn't ready to accept his judgment as final - not before putting it to a further test, at any rate. A hasty meal eaten in a down-at-heel motel room wasn't exactly a definitive trial, especially when the diners were each preoccupied with thoughts of the upcoming operation, a gamble that Farwell - ever the optimist - repeatedly compared to playing Russian roulette with live rounds in three of the six cylinders. Happily, though, the hammer came down on an empty cylinder. And later, after Farwell had adjusted to again seeing what he was eating, I broached a second box of Annie's Macaroni & Cheese, resolving that this time around it would be the centerpiece of a leisurely lunch.

The results were encouraging. Read on.

First- all right, second - impressions. The box contains a generous handful of small pasta shells and an envelope of powdered cheese sauce. (Total weight? 6 ounces. The package copy claims that it yields "about 2.5" servings, but I suggest that canoeists and kayakers treat this with appropriate skepticism.) On peeling open the envelope of cheese sauce, I smelled the unmistakable aroma of, yes, cheese. That was encouraging. The orange "Trump tan" color of the sauce was a bit off-putting, I admit, but it comes from annatto, a dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree and (in the words of some anonymous Wikipedia author) "a traditional colorant for Gloucester cheese since the 16th century." It's also a commonly used colorant in commercial "yellow" cheddars. That's good enough for me, and I was delighted to find no mention of the synthetic azo dyes known as FD&C 5 (tartrazine) and FD&C 6 ("Sunset Yellow") in the list of ingredients. In my experience, chemistry does not always make for better living.

Quantity. As I've already noted, no canoeist or kayaker should take the suggested serving size seriously. A box was just about enough to satisfy two sedentary - and somewhat preoccupied - adults snatching a hurried meal in a motel room. It also made a satisfying lunch for the two of us at home, but I'd urge that active paddlers consider each 6-ounce box to be no more than a single serving.

Ingredients and Nutrition. The ingredient list on the box is short and to the point. You can review it online if you're of a mind. Salt and saturated fat are on the high side, but then this is macaroni cheese. It's not oatmeal.

Preparation and clean-up. I always try prospective camp meals at home, under simulated field conditions, before I add them to my paddling menu. This time was no exception. I made several minor adjustments, however. In preparing Annie's Macaroni & Cheese, I used low-fat milk from the fridge rather than reconstituted powdered dry milk. I departed from the package directions slightly, as well, adding less water than called for when boiling - I used a two-quart pot - and employing the offset-cover-and-tilt method to drain the cooked pasta. (The package suggests using a colander, but I've never carried a colander afield. Does anyone?) I also reconstituted the cheese sauce in a separate vessel - a Sierra Club cup, as it happens - using butter and milk from the fridge.

Clean-up was facilitated in the usual way, by adding a small amount of water to the still-warm pot and allowing it to stand while Farwell and I ate lunch. This made it much easier to remove the cheesy residue later.

So far, so good, but …

The proof of the pasta is in the eating. And how did Annie's Real Aged Cheddar taste? Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, it's the best boxed macaroni cheese I've ever eaten. The sauce was a bit thin and runny, but this small failing is easily remedied if you have a brick of cheddar in your pack. A few shavings will do the trick.

And cost? What about cost? I've left the worst till last. Annie's Macaroni & Cheese isn't cheap. I paid around two bucks a box. I figure it's worth it, though. You can get better mac and cheese for less if you make it from scratch, but if you want the convenience of a prepackaged macaroni cheese meal, and if you're not prepared to settle for something tasting vaguely of laundry starch and wood glue, you'll likely have to pay the price.


Lunch With Bernie - Tamia Nelson Photo


THE BOTTOM LINE

You can take Bernie's word for it. Annie's Shells & Real Aged Cheddar Macaroni & Cheese makes the cut. Just don't imagine that you can feed 2.5 hungry paddlers with one box. You can't. But if you budget for one box per paddler, and then add a slab of bannock or a bagel, a few carrot sticks (for Bernie), and a couple of handfuls of dried fruit, you'll have the makings of a pretty fair quick meal. So… What's stopping you? Hop on over to the HyperMart today!

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Just e-mail Tamia.

In case you're wondering: In the Same Boat never accepts payment for product endorsements, nor do we accept product samples from manufacturers or their representatives. We write about the food we buy on our weekly rounds, and about the gear and books we've purchased, rented, or borrowed over the years. That said, on rare occasions we'll write a product analysis of something we don't own and have never used, based solely on the manufacturer's claims, published specifications, or others' experiences. But when we do that, we'll tell you.

Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.