History will bear me out - we are truly living in the gilded age of mac & cheese. A mere quarter of a century ago, mac & cheez was served with squeezable velveeta on top, unless it came from the eponymous mac-and-cheese box, with the dehydrated cheese powder my mother warned me not to inhale for fear of the dreaded Cheese-Lung.
Today you can go into just about any pub and find savory mac & cheese delights on the bar menu. Or you can walk into an upscale bar and order a bowl of mac & cheese mixed with truffle oil and bacon, wearing a little lattice-work parmesan hat.
In times like these, there's only one thing to be done: throw a Mac & Cheese Bake-Off. The set-up is easy, and before you know it, your friends will be competing to see who can make mac & cheese that is so good you want to marry it. [Spoiler alert! Want the winning recipe from our recent Mac-Off? Click here.]
As in any cooking competition, the first thing you need to do is select your judging panel. You'll need an odd number, and you'll need to pick people who have no dietary restrictions, are lactose avengers, have strong opinions about food, and aren't dying to make their own batch of mac & cheese. It won't be easy, but the future of your bake-off depends on this.
Liz Laneri, esteemed author of the blog LaLizEats Mac n Cheese and Lobster Rolls, recently threw her own Mac-Off. These were her rules:
Everyone who attends and isn't judging MUST provide a mac n cheese dish. I don't care for freeloaders.
It has to be made ahead of time, BUT you can re-heat it at my place.
It doesn't have to be real cheese - vegan dishes count!
Feel free to adjust the mac n cheese in a box, BUT you'll have to be creative and add or change the recipe, 'cause we can't just have a bunch of Annie's or Kraft dishes laying around.
No microwaved/frozen mac n cheese offereings (e.g. Stouffers).
Can't be leftovers from a restaurant or supermarket.
You'll need a banquet table for the mac & cheese, possibly a second table if you're serving any sides or cocktails, and lots of chairs. If you have any hot plates or can beg or borrow some, do so! Mac & cheese loses its heat pretty quickly, and unless you're ruthless about the start time of your event, all the prompt people with their room-temperature mac will be at a serious disadvantage. Provide index cards so you can number the dishes, and contestants can list the main ingredients (so people with dietary restrictions know what's off limits). Provide slips of paper and a drop box so contestants can vote for the fan favorite. Provide ballots for your judges with plenty of space for notes. You'll also need a place to sequester the judges, so they can eat and cast judgement in peace. Be a true party hero and spring for a box of Lactaid - if it saves even one of your friends from violent indigestion, it's worth it.
Keep things interesting! Liz Laneri gave out prizes from Crate & Barrel for her winners - a gift certificate for first place, and measuring spoons for second & third. You also might consider a nice cheese grater, a cutting board or set of cheese knives, a gift certificate to your favorite mac & cheeserie (and if that doesn't exist, it SHOULD), or burned copies of the Bashionista Mac & Cheeseworthy playlist.
It may seem insane to provide any additional food, as your table will be groaning under the weight of all that melted cheese. But if you've got vegans or vegetarians coming, their options may be limited, and if there are people who have a small threshold for dairy, consider these delicious palette-cleansing options:
Baby carrots & hummus
Pretzels & mustard
Strawberries dipped in sour cream, then brown sugar
Molly's Whiskeyed Peach Popsicles
Featured Mocktail: Hugh's Mulled Apple Cider
Pour 2 Qts apple cider into a stockpot. Add a dash of nutmeg, 1 tsp whole cloves, 1 tsp allspice, 3 cinnamon sticks and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Bring to a boil and then simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Place a clove-studded orange slice in each mug, then ladle in the cider. Guests can spike their own with a little spiced rum, bourbon, or applejack.