THE FIRST TIME I made my stepson homemade mac ’n’ cheese, he complained that it didn’t taste like his mom’s, which came from a box. I could hardly fault him. While my formula is pretty good, what does anyone’s “recipe” call for, in the end, but a glop of pasta and cheese sauce? Right? Or was I? Maybe there was a way to elevate the pedestrian comestible to food of the gods.

With this in mind, I (along with 13 others) accepted an invitation to judge the third annual Tillamook Macaroni & Cheese Recipe Contest Grand Finale Cook-Off in December. Could these six finalists know things, secret things, about boiling points and bread crumbs, to which neither Kraft nor I were privy?

On the day of the event, in a room off the lobby of the Hotel Lucia, contestants lay out their secret weapons—king crab, green chiles, bagel chips—and, of course, so much cheese that the air almost shimmers with a milky whey.

There’s no doubt the event ramps up the cheese factor in more ways than one: As contestants whisk their respective roux, fans brandish placards (“Cook! Veronica! Cook!”), and the tiara-festooned Tillamook County Dairy Princess waves. But underlying all of this is a shared hope that the finalists will imbue the humble dish with culinary greatness.

And here they come, bearing their final dishes. One tastes of canned cream soup; another is the color of an earthworm. The best, for me, is Portlander Veronica Vichit-Vadakan’s rendition, which brilliantly reinvents the dish with the addition of pancetta, butternut squash and panko flakes, resulting in a complex, gourmet and yet comforting amalgam of salt, sweet, cream and crunch.

Vichit-Vadakan turns out to be the first runner-up. The top prize—$5,000 in hundred-dollar bills—is bestowed on Lorie Roach, from Buckatunna, Mississippi, for her Jumbo Shell Pasta Stuffed With Baby White Cheddar and Chicken Macaroni. Still, I couldn’t forget Vichit-Vadakan’s sublime version; hence the recipe at right. Besides, what Portlander wants to make mac ’n’ cheese from Buckatunna? Turns out, though, all those versions coursing through America’s larder really aren’t so different, but with just the right amount of flair, a few of them achieve true greatness. 

Autumn Comfort Mac 

This recipe was adapted from Portlander Veronica Vichit-Vadakan’s first-runner-up recipe. 

Serves 4-6

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 butternut squash (approx. 2 lbs), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 12 oz cavatappi (hollow corkscrew pasta)
  • 4 oz pancetta, diced
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 4 tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 2 cups Tuscan Blend shredded Tillamook Cheese mix
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1½ tbsp sage, finely chopped
  • 4 oz goat cheese, crumbled

TOPPING

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
  • 1 tbsp freshly chopped sage leaves
  • ½ cup Tuscan Blend shredded Tillamook Cheese mix
  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. 
  2. In a bowl, toss butternut squash pieces with olive oil. Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet and bake 20 minutes, stirring once midway. Remove when squash is tender. Set aside and reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees.
  3. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add cavatappi and cook approximately 8 minutes or until al dente. Drain well and set aside.
  4. On the stovetop, cook pancetta in a skillet over medium heat for 6 minutes. Add shallot and cook 2 minutes more. Remove from heat.
  5. In a 2-quart saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and, stirring constantly, cook for approximately 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Add milk and cream slowly, whisking constantly, until smooth. Stir in 2 cups of cheese mix, until melted. Remove from heat. Stir in black pepper and 1 ½ tbsp chopped sage.
  6. Combine cavatappi, cheese sauce and pan-cetta-shallot mixture in a large bowl. Fold in butternut squash and goat cheese. Pour mixture into a buttered 9-x-13-inch baking pan.
  7. Prepare the topping: In a small saucepan, melt butter, turn off heat, then stir in panko, 1 tbsp sage and ½ cup cheese. Sprinkle over pasta. Bake 20-25 minutes, until cheese is bubbling. Brown for 3 minutes under the broiler. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.