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.