Opinion
Bachelor Cuisine I
(Dec. 13, 2002)

Bachelor Cuisine:
Box Macaroni and Cheese

Any exploration of bachelor cuisine must include an investigation of one of the foundational dishes of the form: box macaroni and cheese.

Box Mac with Oil

Ingredients:
1 box macaroni and cheese
Vegetable oil

I developed this recipe, mentioned in my Squishy Yellow Elegy, in response to a double-edged problem. First, I was dissatisfied with the richness and cheesiness of my box mac. Too often, you wind up with a bland, greasy noodle mess. I may have no taste, but I have taste buds, damn it, and I insist they be challenged. The blandness problem is, to a certain extent, a matter of cooking technique; I find that leaning well to the al dente side of things makes the box mac cheesier. I also found that leaving out the milk makes for a less runny, more forceful dish. As a result, I had been making my box mac exclusively with butter (or, more frequently, margarine, which melts more readily) for some time.

The second part of my problem was that I was, at the time, living in a dorm. I had no proper kitchen, and no refrigerator. I just had a hot pot (for those of you well removed from the college lifestyle, a hot pot is like an open-topped electric kettle. Like a hot plate, only a pot. Hence the name). Now, a hot pot is an admirable vessel for cooking box mac, as long as you have a strainer and no qualms about dumping boiling water out a fourth-story window into the quad. But margarine keeps poorly without refrigeration, and hanging your perishables outside in a bag doesn't work as well as you might think, even in the depths of winter.

Faced with this conundrum, I made a daring and terrible logical leap. I essayed an experiment, using pure vegetable oil in place of margarine. It worked surprisingly well. It makes a thick, gooey cheese sauce, extremely rich and tarry. You have to be careful not to overdo it; too much oil, and it passes gooey into greasy and oily, which isn't very good. Oil allows you to back off from the al dente principle a bit; it's actually sort of good to have slightly better done noodles, so that they soak up some oil and let go some starchy goodness to party down with the oil and cheese and make a truly righteous cheese sauce.

I don't cook Box Mac with Oil much any more; I have a kitchen now, and a post-adolescent metabolism. Box Mac with Oil is also particularly disappointing when it fails - noodles swimming in oil are not appealing. It's like a reheated Alfredo sauce. Occasionally I use a few drops of oil to supplement the margarine when I feel particularly decadent.

CAUTION: Under no circumstances use olive oil in this recipe! The results will be vile and nasty.

Egg Noodles and Cheese

Ingredients:
Wide egg noodles
Kraft Macaroni & Cheese cheese topping

This was a dish of my childhood. It depends on a particular product, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese cheese topping. It used to be called, I believe, Kraft Grated American Cheese Food. In most supermarkets, you can find green canisters of pre-grated Parmesan. They also make grated Romano, in a red canister (it was red, anyway). And they used to make American in a yellow canister. However, somewhere along the line, Kraft took it off the market, and then decided to reintroduce it as part of their box mac brand. It's a festive blue canister, now. At any rate, you make this dish by boiling up some egg noodles, straining them, dumping them on a plate, and sprinking with cheese topping to taste. It's similar to box mac, but way less fat. You can also get casual about the cooking; egg noodles don't care if you overcook them. It's really hard to ruin an egg noodle.

Red's Box Mac Tuna Casserole

Ingredients:
1 box macaroni and cheese
1 can tuna, packed in water
four slices American cheese
Optional: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese cheese topping

This is only sort of a casserole. I've never made it in a real casserole dish; instead, I use one of a few medium-deep round bowls I have. Whatever you make it in needs to be microwave safe.

Make your box mac according to taste. Turn it out into your bowl. Add the tuna, and stir well. I don't advise using oil-packed tuna; despite my general comfort with box mac and oil, oil-packed tuna invariably makes a greasy casserole. At this point, you can sprinkle the surface with some cheese topping, but it's optional.

Finally, layer the surface with American cheese slices. I recommend using pre-sliced cheese; it's easier to get a uniform thickness, and it tends to have the right amount of processing for good melting. I try to stay with packages labeled "cheese" or "processed cheese". "Cheese food" and "cheese spread" get a little too artificial even for me. I usually wind up tearing up the last slice or two to fit the uncovered corners.

Then pop the bowl in the microwave and heat on high for one to two minutes, until the cheese has melted. Serve quickly; it's still good once the cheese cools, but it's not as good. I recommend waiting until the cheese is no longer molten, however; it's best hot enough for all the parts to be soft, but not too hot to taste.

Box Mac with Bonus Cheese

Ingredients:
1 box macaroni and cheese
1 slice American cheese

This is the simplest way I know to give your box mac's cheesiness a boot in the rear. After preparing your box mac in the usual fashion, toss in a slice of American cheese with the butter or margarine. Stir vigorously. You may want to put the pot back on a low heat while you do this. The cheese melts relatively quickly, and the resulting cheese sauce is wonderfully thick and sticky.

This is a good technique for when you've mildly botched your box mac and created a bland batch. It's not as risky as Box Mac with Oil.

I use American cheese rather than a more respectable cheese because better cheeses don't melt as well. Processed cheddar works sometimes, and will usually work for Red's Tuna Casserole, now that I think about it, but cheddar sliced from a block probably won't do it. Cheshire is right out; too dry. Grated cheddar can work if you add some heat and start with a fairly moist sauce. Soft cheeses like Brie or Camembert would probably melt, but mixing classy cheese and box mac is just silly. I mean, at that point I might as well start adding a bechamel sauce or something.

Box Mac and Spam

Ingredients:
1 box macaroni and cheese.
1 small can Spam

I got this recipe out of a TV commercial. This is, for bachelor cuisine, the highest possible provenance -- superior even to can labels -- but I remain slightly dubious. However, it's such a good example of the style that I include it here.

A small can of Spam is key. A larger can is way too much Spam. Dice the Spam, or cut it into 1/4" sticks. Fry until lightly browned. Overbrowning your Spam will make it overpowering.

Make your box mac to taste. I recommend a lighter recipe; this is a heavy dish, and using Box Mac with Oil or Box Mac with Bonus Cheese will make it a bit strong.

Mix the Spam into the box mac. Stir well and serve.

This recipe is better than it sounds; on the other hand, it sounds pretty bad. The salty, greasy meat flavor of Spam is an interesting accent to the salty, greasy cheese flavor of box mac, and the firm yet spongy luncheon meat adds texture. The die-hard aficionado of bachelor cuisine will enjoy this dish; it is, in a sense, the escargots of bachelor cuisine.

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© 2002-2005 Michael Suileabhain-Wilson. All rights reserved.