Can you say “macaroni and cheese, please!”? One of our favorite childhood dishes has now become all grown-up and made its way from the early days of the depression to the gourmet menu. Who would come to think that James L. Kraft’s 1916 patent for macaroni and cheese would make it to the foundation of many of today’s appetizers and entrees? For the culinarian, this classic version of this recipe has been around since 1769 and earlier.

We all know simple Kraft Mac and Cheese is just empty the box, boil, drain and add milk, butter, and the powdered cheese packet. For the at-home chef, a classical Mornay sauce made of a pale roux and cream is the sauce of choice. Just butter and flour and hot milk, whisk and add you favorite cheese. The real fun begins when ingredients sitting in your fridge become incorporated into your mac or used to top it off. As a child, I would find our mac and cheese served at the kitchen table with cubed ham or sliced cooked kielbasa. A family favorite was mom’s famous cheeseburger mac with the right amount of ketchup, ground beef and sauteed onions. It might not have been gourmet, but boy did it feed the masses. Most recently, my daughter introduced me to a new take on classic mac and cheese that has become a home favorite: mac and cheese topped with a pile of smoked pulled barbecue pork on a cornbread base. Delicious and very filling.

Today many chefs are stepping up the American classic. A refined version of your kid’s favorite is a lobster mac, made with a white cheese sauce from white cheddar, parmesan, shredded fontina cheese and lobster. If preparing this meal at home, I recommend adding two teaspoons of lobster base into a quart of your sauce. This will intensify the lobster flavor within the dish. If you enjoy pesto, try that instead! Just add 2 tablespoons of pesto and half a cup of basil for an entirely new taste.

If you want to move away from the tired casserole, try a bacon mac and cheese melt. Place macaroni on your favorite slice of sourdough bread, add chopped or sliced smoked applewood bacon, and grill to a light golden brown. If entertaining and need an inexpensive appetizer, take a small ice-cream scoop and measure out equal portions of macaroni. Form into balls and run through a breading station of flour, egg wash and bread crumbs, then fry. If you want to jazz up these mac attack appetizers, add any of the following: bacon, jalapeno peppers, ham or lobster. Serve with a dipping sauce of your choice and watch your guests be impressed!

So the next time you reach for that blue and yellow box in the kitchen cabinet or you’re thinking of making a classic Mornay sauce for the traditional mac and cheese, let yourself go and be creative.

Chef Dan’s top mac and cheese recipes

Philly cheesesteak mac and cheese

Make custard-style mac and cheese, replacing 1 cup of the cheddar with provolone. Meanwhile, sauté 1 sliced onion and 2 sliced bell peppers in vegetable oil; stir in 1/2 pound shredded breakaway steak. Spoon over the mac and cheese.

Cajun andouille mac and cheese

Make American mac and cheese, adding 1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning with the flour and butter (roux). Stir in 8 ounces browned diced andouille sausage, 1/3 cup small diced green peppers and 1 sliced scallion.

Lobster mac and cheese

Make classic baked mac and cheese, using all cheddar; add two teaspoons lobster base to cream. Add 12 ounces chopped cooked lobster. Top with the cheese and a mix of 1/2 cup panko, 1/4 cup chopped chives and 1 tablespoon melted butter; broil until golden. (Do not bake.)

The ultimate mac-and-cheese burger, adapted from Kingsford recipe


3/4 lb. ground beef (preferably an 80/20 blend)

1/8 cup shredded colby jack cheese

4 slices thick-cut bacon (cooked)

Panko-crusted mac-and-cheese buns

Panko-crusted mac-and-cheese bun ingredients

2 (8 oz.) boxes elbow macaroni and cheese mix

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 eggs (beaten with 2 tbsp. milk)

4 cups panko breadcrumbs

canola oil or peanut oil for frying

Panko-crusted mac-and-cheese bun instructions

Make macaroni and cheese mixes according to directions. Place the mac and cheese in a large bowl and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes to cool completely and thicken.

Using your hands, form 2 divided cups of the mac and cheese into two 4.5-inch wide disks for the bottom buns. To create the top buns, use 3-4 cups of mac and cheese to build two 4.5-inch wide domes. Wrap each bun half tightly with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes to harden, but not freeze.

As the grill comes to temperature, place the flour and salt in a shallow bowl and stir to combine. Place beaten eggs in a second bowl and the panko in a third. Working one at a time, dredge each bun half in flour, then the egg mixture, then panko.

In a medium saucepan, add approximately 4 inches of oil and heat over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the mac and cheese buns one at a time and fry for about 2 minutes until golden brown. Remove the bun from the oil and set on paper towels to drain.

Burger instructions

Form ground beef into 4 flat patties. Place 1/2 of the grated cheese in the center of each of two patties. Top with the remaining two patties and pinch the edges closed to create cheese-stuffed burgers.

Place the burgers on the grill and cook until they reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Farenheit.

To assemble the burgers, place the cheese-stuffed patties on the bottom mac-and-cheese buns. Add 2 slices of bacon and the top bun to each burger and serve immediately.

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