Earlier this month, I had the great responsibility of judging a macaroni and cheese festival. The event, the Vermont Mac & Cheese Challenge, was hosted by the Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company and held at Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, Vt. It featured mac 'n' cheeses from 20 local restaurants.
Since I've been a mac 'n' cheese lover for my entire life (no surprise!), judging this event wasn't exactly an onerous task. I'll admit that I was slightly concerned about fitting into my jeans by the end of the day, but I managed to dispel that fear by limiting myself to just a few bites of each mac 'n' cheese entry (plus, I'd completed an extra-challenging spin class the day before for extra peace of mind). Caloric concerns aside, exploring the 20 options—some containing sriracha, pork belly, apples, focaccia, and other unlikely ingredients—was great fun, and provided plenty of inspiration for future culinary exploration.
Along with fellow judges WCAX-TV
's Anson Tebbetts and Gourmet Business
publisher David Spencer, I evaluated each entry using a scoring sheet provided by Vermont Farmstead. Dishes were rated on a scale of 1 to 10 for characteristics such as "flavor," "cheesiness," "texture," and "originality." I have to admit that in some cases, I favored what seemed to be the less original dishes; I'm a sucker for classic, creamy mac without much embellishment. In my opinion, when done correctly, a simple mac 'n' cheese outshines a maple-bacon-topped, broccoli-laden, bread crumb-encrusted creation any day. But that's just me! I gave creativity points where they were due.
In the end, my fellow judges and I selected Singleton's Market
, of Quechee, Vt. (shown below), as the winner. Singleton's also took home the Kids' Choice award; who says kids don't have discerning palates?
Chef Gabe Hathorn's dish, featuring Singleton's own Smoked Cheddar, Vermont Farmstead's Alehouse Cheddar, muenster cheese, and Singletown's shredded smoked ham, topped with buttered breadcrumbs, was rich and creamy, with a satisfying extra-savory element added by the housemade meat. See below for the recipe.
I was also a big fan of the mac 'n' cheese made by second-place winner PINE at Hanover Inn
, of Hanover, N.H. Chef Justin Dain put together perhaps the most photogenic dish in the competition, consisting of orechiette pasta in a creamy white cheddar sauce, drizzled with a chipotle aioli and topped with chives, local bacon, and a manchego crumble. I loved that the plate held a mix of flavors that perfectly complemented the cheesy pasta base.
Third place went to Home Hill Inn
, of Plainfield, N.H. (pictured below). Chef Ray Barnard’s mac ‘n’ cheese was coated in a sauce made with Vermont Farmstead’s BrickHaus Tilsit and Hot Pepper Windsordale cheeses. It also contained flavorful pulled pork and was finished with a corn bread topping.
Unlike some other food competitions I've attended, the Mac & Cheese Challenge allowed anybody with a ticket to sample everything in the competition. I loved this very democratic approach, which meant that each person could vote to award a People's Choice winner. That honor went to Harrington House Inn
of Bethel, Vt., whose creation contained zippy diced chorizo, cheddar, and blue cheese.
As the weather here in New England becomes increasingly mac 'n' cheese-friendly, I'll be taking a page from the chefs at the Mac & Cheese Challenge and mixing in some new flavors to my favorite recipes. Cheers!
Singleton's Market Macaroni and Cheese
1/4 cup (half a stick) butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cups Half and Half
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup Vermont Farmstead Alehouse Cheddar
1 cup Singletons Smoked Cheddar
1 cup muenster cheese
2 cups shredded smoked ham
1 pound macaroni, cooked
2 cups buttered breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 400 F. Shred all three types of cheeses, and combine in a bowl.
In a saucepan, melt butter and add flour. Cook until browned, and then whisk in Half and Half and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until slightly thickened. Add half of the cheese and remove from heat.
Add remaining cheese and smoked ham. Once the cheese and ham are incorporated, mix in the macaroni. After pasta is incorporated, pour into a 2-quart greased baking dish. Top with buttered breadcrumbs. Bake until golden brown and bubbly.