After years of tinkering with trying to create a quick and easy preparation for macaroni and cheese that everyone over here will eat, I finally landed on two versions that fit the bill. Neither one can be considered homemade, really, but we’ll call them “home-tweaked”. Both rely on that most magical potion, the starch-rich water in which the pasta cooks (with apologies to my dear gluten-free friends and a promise that the next recipe will contain one hundred percent ZERO gluten). Here I give you “Hack ‘n’ Cheese” two ways:
Hack ‘n’ Cheese (Take One)
1 boxed macaroni and cheese (we prefer Annie’s)
~2/3 cup shredded cheese (the kind you can buy in a bag that contains an anti-caking agent works beautifully…contrary to rumor, that ingredient does nothing to inhibit the melt factor, in this recipe at least); (we use cheddar but it would be fun to experiment with other kinds or blends)
~2/3 cup cooking liquid
Directions: Boil the pasta until al dente, then drain it while reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Working quickly while pasta and water are still hot, add back 2/3 cup of the liquid along with the shredded cheese; stir to incorporate. Then add the dairy dust from the packet, sprinkling the powder into the pot while stirring until the shredded cheese has melted and all has been incorporated, adding more cooking liquid and shredded cheese if desired for flavor and consistency. (No butter or milk necessary!)
Hack ‘n’ Cheese (Take Two)
1 lb. pasta (we use elbow macaroni for that classic look, but anything from fusilli to farfalle to fettuccine feels fine)
8 wedges (1 whole round package) of Laughing Cow Creamy Original Cheese (I’ve never tried one of the other flavor varieties for this preparation…yet!)
1 cup cooking liquid
Salt and pepper (we use generous amounts here)
(Optional: basil pesto, sun-dried tomato pesto, Chinese spicy chili crisp, smoked paprika, one of the Trader Joe’s Seasoning Blends (my favorite is the Umami) or Truffle Powder Seasoning to liven things up for more adventuresome palates)
Directions: Boil the pasta until al dente, then drain while reserving a cup of the cooking liquid. Working quickly while pasta and water are still hot, add back the cup of liquid and the Laughing Cow cheese wedges (it occurs to me that if I were giving these directions to one of my children, I might remember to encourage them to unwrap the wedges before adding them and to dispose of the wrappers, as aluminum is widely considered inedible. I’d add that the cardboard wheel packaging is similarly not intended for human consumption, but it IS recyclable!). Stir and season and stir some more, until cheese has melted and the mixture reaches desired consistency (you might want to turn the burner on its lowest setting while stirring to encourage the cheese-melt factor). Adjust seasoning to taste. Sprinkle, drizzle, or stir in one or more of the optional garnishes, or try what my husband considers to be the universal solution to food prepared with tenderly-aged taste buds in mind: hot sauce.
Pro tip: While dousing your bowl of Hack ‘n Cheese with hot sauce, it’s recommended to sing (to the tune of Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line (Shake Señora)”):
“Shake, shake, shake, Cholula; shake your bottle line;
Shake, shake, shake, Cholula; shake it all the time.
Work, work, work, Cholula; work your bottle line;
Work, work, work, Cholula; work it all the time.”*
*Calypso dance moves are strongly suggested to enhance performance value, and bonus points will be immediately awarded to any parent who can get the kids to respond with “OK, I believe you!” Keep it spicy out there, people.