Photo by alanagkelly
Culinary prescriptivism has no place in a conversation about macaroni and cheese. From the fanciest of béchamel-based macs to a pot of Velveeta and shells, I firmly maintain there's no wrong way to make or eat pasta covered in cheese sauce. If pressed though, I'll always choose oven-baked over stove-top mac. The appeal of crunchy edges and burbling cheese sauce is undeniable -- and once you free yourself from the prison of breadcrumb-only toppings, the possibilities are endless. Let's get indulgent, friends.
Photo by Jeff Eaton.
As with many of my more obscene recipe ideas, this is all Matty Matheson's fault. (NSFW language abounds in the linked video, btw.) I watched him crush up Cheetos in a blender and put them on top of a vat of macaroni and "proh-cess" cheese and I had to have it. This recipe is bomb, but honestly, a Cheeto crust is a pain in the arse! Not only do Cheetos burn both unevenly and surprisingly fast, they also soak up a ton of cheese sauce, which can make them more spongy than crunchy. If you're dead set on a Cheeto crust, pulverize them as evenly as possible, use a thin layer to top the mac, add them in the last 5 minutes or so of baking, and watch them like a hawk.
Photo by masonj.
Unlike many of their fried corn-snack cousins, Doritos have a hefty crunch that makes for an excellent mac and cheese topping. Evenly pulverized and spread thinly, they will hold up in a 350º-400º F oven without burning or going soggy. The only downside is that Doritos are so aggressively seasoned that the topping becomes the focus of the dish, especially with an iconic flavour like Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese. Is this necessarily bad? Of course not, provided the mac and cheese itself is relatively mild. Throw some drained pickled jalapeños in if you're feeling spicy (I always am).
Photo by Charles.
If Doritos belong on mild bases, a strongly-flavored mac and cheese base cries out for Cheez-Its. Being relatively mild in flavour, wheat-based, and baked rather than fried, they're essentially extra-tasty bread crumbs. The classic flavour works very well on a sharp cheddar and aged Gouda-heavy base, while white cheddar Cheez-Its complement the hell out of a sauce spiked with pecorino and bleu cheese. I have an aversion to Tabasco Cheez-Its (an ex-boyfriend used to eat a lot of them and then try to kiss me and it tasted the way dog food smells) but if you like them, they'd go best atop a smoked cheese sauce.
Photo by Kate Ter Haar.
There's a reason that potato chips are the ultimate mac and cheese topping and, as far as I'm concerned, that reason is versatility. For every good chip flavour -- read: not those hateful Moscow Mule ones -- there's a mac and cheese pairing that really sings. Here are some of the best.
Their neutral flavour means they're good on basically anything, but if you ask me, you should lean into the trashy vibe. Make some neon orange mac and cheese, throw in sliced cooked hot dogs (and peas if you need some green), top with a generous layer of crushed potato chips and bake until crispy. Delicious.
A havarti-based sauce is an obvious and semi-classy choice, but check this out: cheeseburger mac and cheese. Add browned and well-drained ground beef to the classic Velveeta/Ro-Tel duo, plus several handfuls of finely sliced scallions, and top with crushed dill pickle chips. I think bacon would be too much, but don't let me tell you how to live your life.
Pulled pork or barbecue chicken mac and cheese, duh. NEXT!
Sour cream and onion
Ever made spinach-artichoke-dip mac and cheese? If not, please do, and top it with crushed sour cream and onion chips. The flavours are similar enough to complement and just different enough to stand out; in other words, a match made in heaven.
I finally live somewhere where Herr's chips are sold, and I fiend for each and every one of their Old Bay-flavored offerings. Crab or lobster mac and cheese isn't my favourite, but if it's your jam, consider an Old Bay chip topping. It just makes sense.
I hope this article inspires you to ratchet up the trashiness on your next mac and cheese adventure -- and for my readers outside the US, please tell me all about the great chip flavours that I'm missing out on. I'm quite fond of All-Dressed chips, but haven't been able to think of a mac and cheese pairing that would be better than just eating them out of the bag. What other combinations should I try? Tell me about them below!