Sponsored by Blount Fine Foods
Macaroni and cheese has evolved from its former status as a ho-hum choice for kids to a versatile menu component with on-trend appeal at just about any foodservice concept.
“Mac and cheese is as American as apple pie and transcends cultures, classes and age groups,” says Dale Miller, president of Master Chef Consulting Group, Clifton Park, N.Y. “It is the quintessential comfort food, evoking memories of childhood and simpler times.”
Today’s restaurateurs are combining mac and cheese with an array of ingredients, from bacon to truffles, melding the dish’s gooey, comfort-food appeal with consumer demand for bold flavors and high-quality ingredients.
The basic dish is a blank canvas upon which chefs can exercise their artistic flair, says Miller. Consumer interest in global flavors is allowing restaurateurs even more license to experiment with ingredient variations to create new and innovative side dishes, appetizers and main courses, he says.
Mac and cheese menu ideas
Miller offers several ideas for menuing mac-and-cheese dishes at low-priced, mid-range and high-end restaurants:
• For low-priced operations, he suggests tweaking mac and cheese by simply creating a unique topping such as panko, potato chip and bacon, or buttered cheddar popcorn. Or operators could add a spicy flavor profile such as Sriracha, green Hatch chilies or Cajun seasoning. Mac and cheese also can be part of a mashup topping on a burger, sandwich or pizza, Miller says.
• For mid-priced and fast-casual restaurants, he suggests infusing the cheese sauce with beer or whiskey, adding proteins such as barbecued pulled pork, buffalo chicken or sausage, or offering vegetable-centric versions with Brussels sprouts, wild mushrooms, spinach or butternut squash. “Other options could include mac-and-cheese pot pies, waffles, sliders or egg rolls,” he says.
• At more upscale restaurants, “Mac and cheese can be made luxurious and elegant with the addition of saffron, white truffle, foie gras, lobster, oysters, crab or shrimp,” says Miller. “Or imagine mac and cheese with duck confit, Kobe beef, braised oxtail, Iberico ham or even a dollop of crème fraîche and caviar.”
Expanding the offering
Noodles & Company is one operator that has been at the forefront of the mac-and-cheese trend, offering on-trend flavors, clean ingredients and the ability to customize dishes.
The Broomfield, Colo.-based chain recently rolled out its World Famous Macs menu featuring four varieties of mac and cheese, including three that had previously only been available as seasonal items. Joining the chain’s original Wisconsin Mac & Cheese, which has long been a top seller, are Truffle Mac, Buffalo Chicken Mac and BBQ Pork Mac.
“With our menu of craveable flavors from around the globe, we find that some guests start with Wisconsin Mac & Cheese before they venture into new flavors,” says Danielle Moore, director of communications at Noodles & Company.
The chain also tested a Bacon Mac and a Chili Mac, and plans to continue testing new varieties, she says.
As part of the rollout of the new menu, Noodles & Company enhanced the flavor of the cheese sauce by adding a sharper cheddar flavor. The new sauce is also free from gluten and rBST (a hormone used in dairy cows), and contains no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners.
Many operators have also found that mac and cheese can be a vehicle that allows customers to exercise their own culinary preferences.
“We often see guests customize their mac and cheese by adding veggies such as broccoli and tomatoes or by including a protein option, such as our meatballs or grilled chicken,” says Moore of Noodles & Company.
This trend toward customization is also reflected in the increasing prevalence of mac-and-cheese bars. Whole Foods, for example, is planning to debut its first mac-and-cheese bar in a new Denver store opening this fall. In addition to basic mac and cheese, the bar will offer barbecued pulled pork mac and cheese, roasted tomato mac and cheese and a vegan mac and cheese.
Bob Sewall, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Blount Fine Foods, which offers about 10 different varieties of mac and cheese, says restaurants that use the company’s products sometimes offer them on “build you own” mac-and-cheese bars, with toppings such as scallions, bacon, tomatoes or extra cheese available.
Many operators also create custom dishes of their own, such as casseroles or a Blount Buffalo Style Mac & Cheese pizza with chicken.
“You can take flavored mac and cheese in all different directions,” says Sewall. “By pairing short ribs with our Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese, for example, you can really elevate the dish.”
Blount’s clean-label mac-and-cheese products are all made with real cheese and quality ingredients. In addition, the pasta is specially formulated with a high egg-white content to preserve its integrity during storage on a steam table. The heat-and-eat products are available in 4-pound bags, and do not require the use of additional cooking equipment in the restaurant.
Varieties such as Blount’s Hatch Chile Mac & Cheese and its Mac & Cheese with Bacon, which contains nitrate-free bacon, help operators enhance the quality of their offerings and add variety to the menu, according to Sewall. They can also be featured in limited-time offers to help add excitement, he says.