Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A long-ass post but it's for science (sorta)

Growing up in the Midwest means that I cannot help but be a macaroni and cheese fanatic. It’s not my fault, really – they made it so darn easy to make that coming home from school it took only 10 minutes to whip up a bowlful of creamy deliciousness. Sure, it was usually meant to be a side dish, served with either hot dogs or fish sticks, but there was just enough in the box to serve as an acceptable meal for a ravenous 10 year old fresh from a rousing bike ride across town*.

Of course, back then there were only two kinds of mac and cheese: Kraft and the generic stuff that came in the black and white box and tasted vaguely of sawdust and mold. These days however, we have no end of choices. Kraft has flooded the market with various themed shapes like Scooby Doo, Rugrats, and Spongebob Squarepants (the “Heaven’s Gate” Cult of the new millennium). Kids these days don’t know how lucky they are, I tell you.

But it’s more than just variety, Kraft is only doing this to beat off all the competition, as the instant mac and cheese market has suddenly become a hotbed of cutthroat competition! Now there are all these “high end” and “organic” varieties out there that claim to be “good for you” and “ridiculously overpriced”. I was skeptical – who would pay more than a dollar for a box of mac and cheese?

Well, it turns out I would. But only because I was thinking it might make an interesting blog topic…and because I like mac and cheese.

So I went out and bought six boxes of the stuff from a bunch of different companies, and have been slowly working my way through the whole batch. My original intent was to eat nothing but mac and cheese for a week straight, but I’m old now, and going on a weeklong M&C bender might not be terribly healthy. Plus I’d hate to get tired of M&C halfway through so that my results were biased against the later samples simply out of boredom.**

By this point I’ve made it through the first three boxes. The methodology was simple, and I tried to cover all the main aspects of M&C. Each one was evaluated on eight criteria: Creamyness***, Aroma, Taste, Nutrition, Ease of Preparation, Leftoverness****, Price, and Pasta Quality. All were given a score of 1-5, with 5 being the best.

The contenders in this edition include Kraft Regular, Kraft Supermac, and President’s Choice Original Cheddar.

Kraft Macaroni and Cheese
First off the Kraft regular. Admittedly, I haven’t eaten this stuff straight up in years. I recently discovered that my mixing in a teaspoon or two of salsa one can transform regular M&C into a bowl of Spicy Mexican Cheesyliciousness. But in the interest of integrity, I left it out of this batch. It didn’t help. On the up side, this stuff was cheap and it was just as easy to make as I remembered. The most interesting note was that it actually tasted better the next day when reheated in the microwave. Perhaps I’ve had Kraft all wrong – maybe it just needs to age, like wine or real cheese! Next experiment I’ll just leave it in the fridge for a week and then perhaps it’ll be the bestest ever!*****

Creamyness: 2
  • More oily than creamy, really
Ease of Prep: 3
  • Same as it ever was
Aroma: 2
  • Honestly, I couldn’t smell a hint of cheese – but I suspect my sense of smell isn’t what it once was what with allergy season and all
Leftoverness: 3
  • Actually tasted better the next evening than it did when it was fresh
Taste: 2
  • It’ll do. Ho-hum.
Pasta Quality: 2
  • A little on the soggy side – but not completely dissolved
Nutrition: 2
  • Nutrition? From Mac and cheese? Who am I kidding here…
Price: 4
  • $0.79 for the plain jane stuff – just right.
Total Score: 20

President’s Choice Original Cheddar
Needless to say I was plenty surprised to find that President Bush has come out with his own line of M&C. Frankly, I found it a bit underhanded to try and restore America’s faith in him via a line of boxed pasta, but this stuff was pretty good – the best pasta quality thus far and my entire apartment smelled of M&C for hours afterward******. It’s a little more spendy, and isn’t quite as good after a day of being Tupperwared in the fridge – but I’ll so do this one again.

Creamyness: 5
  • Soooo smooth…[Homer-esque gargling sound]
Ease of Prep: 3
  • About as easy as everything else
Aroma: 4
  • Much better than the Kraft regular
Leftoverness: 3
  • Still good, but a little bit of a letdown from when it was fresh.
Taste: 3
  • Very good, but oddly enough it didn’t taste as good as it smelled
Pasta Quality: 5
  • Perfect al dente – more than made up for somewhat disappointing taste
Nutrition: 2
  • Again, not much – take it with am ultivitamin however and this would shoot through the roof
Price: 4
  • At $1.39 a box, this is a little high. Suitable for special occasions or for when the boss is over for dinner.
Total Score: 29

Kraft Supermac
Trying to stave off criticisms leveled by people like myself in the first review, Kraft recently devised a form of M&C that is fortified with vitamins and is lower in fat than the regular stuff. Surprisingly, it came out of the pot looking much creamier than the regular, with a much better smell and taste. And it is a little better for you, but it’s not enough to keep you alive if aliens kidnapped you and offered you a choice of only one human food to live on for the rest of your life. Finally, despite the marketing – I acquired zero superhuman powers as a result of eating this version. I was deeply disappointed.

Creamyness: 4
  • I made it using the “recommended recipe” which uses less butter and it turned out much creamier than the regular stuff. Can also be made the regular way but it’s apparently not as good for you
Ease of Prep: 3
  • Why did I even include this? It’s the same for all of them…
Aroma: 3
  • Better than regular, but nothing to write home about
Leftoverness: 3
  • Just fine – perfectly acceptable for regular consumption
Taste: 3
  • Pretty much split the middle between the Regular and the President’s Choice
Pasta Quality: 3
  • Claims to be made using “whole grain” and to its credit, it held up a bit better than the regular. Nothing to write home about though – although if you did your life has larger issues.
Nutrition: 3
  • The great lie of this stuff. Sure, it’s got Iron, and Vitamins D, E, and B1 – but in each case it’s only about 10% of the RDA for each. You want vitamins? Mix in some broccoli and you’ll probably be better off.
Price: 3.5
  • $0.99 is between the first two – but for all the health claims, I expected more for my money
Total Score: 25.5

That’s all for this week. I need to take a few days off M&C now and eat some real food. Next week I’ve got the extremes: store brand cheapo, high-end organic, and a version that claims to be kosher. Should be fun!

* This should in no way be interpreted that I was a bike fiend a la J.Bro or Sophist as a child – my town growing up was only about a mile and a half across in its entirety
** Yay science boy and my academic integrity!
*** Sure, it might not be a real word, but real scientist make up words all the time so I’m going with it as worst case it only adds to my science street cred
**** Defined as "How does it hold up after sitting in my fridge overnight?"
***** Or I’ll get food poisoning. Oh, the lengths I go to for science and pseudo-journalism…
****** And in a good way, not in a “Macaroni and Limberger” sort of way

6 comments:

Grafs said...

Ahhh my favorite food ever...Thanks for the review. I've never tried/seen president's choice. Maybe it's a regional thing.

towwas said...

1. Cheese. Ugh.
2. If this whole tool of the man thing doesn't work out, you should consider working for Consumer Reports.

J.Po said...

Please please please review Annie's Organic. That's what my roomie and I get ... but I can't remember the flavor of anything else to make my own comparison.

grrrbear said...

Grafs - I hadn't ever seen it before either, maybe it's new.

TOWWAS - Clearly, you have never beheld the power of cheese...

J.Po - That's the type of Organic I bought for the next segment! Now you've got me all excited, maybe I'll whip up some tonight when I get home.

Spice said...

Thanks for bringing back fond memories of a zillion dinners consisting of M&C and hot dogs! What was the deal with sticking those two things together? Is it a Minnesotan thing? Did others do that?

Also, the NYT did a very similar study not long ago and also reviewed my favorite fast M&C - Boston Market (it's frozen, not stovetop). They said it was better than some restaurant versions! I'm not sure it's that good, but it's pretty yummy even though it doesn't hold up _at all_ overnight.

The Phoenix said...

Excellent post!

Now I know what to feed my kids everyday.