Mac ‘n’ Cheese Cook-Off features gourmet comfort food for a good cause

Craig Cunningham/Daily Mail
The cookoff team at the Alzheimer’s Association had to come up with a recipe off the cuff, since all the seasoned cooks realized they didn’t use a written down recipe. Here, Kaarmin Ford adds seasoning to the cheese sauce while Laurel Kirksey whisks it together.
Craig Cunningham/Daily Mail
Alzheimer’s Association team members Laurel Kirksey, left, and Kaarmin Ford stir their cheese sauce into a noodle and tomato mixture, during a trail run of the group’s recipe for Saturday’s inaugural Childhood Language Center Mac ‘N’ Cheese cookoff at the Capitol Market.
Craig Cunningham/Daily Mail
Kelsey Clough drains the noodles during the Alzheimer’s Association’s practice session. The team decided to use two kinds of noodles, Italian cavatappi and mezzi rigatoni, in their gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese recipe.

Cooks use their noodles, elbow grease

to craft recipe for comfort food contest

By ZACK HAROLD

DAILY MAIL LIFE EDITOR

Local comfort food fans are working hard to craft the perfect macaroni and cheese, no blue boxes allowed.

The Childhood Language Center will host its inaugural Mac ‘n’ Cheese Cook-Off from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday at the Capitol Market.

The event includes 26 teams in three categories: local restaurants, nonprofit groups and corporations, who will battle it out for bragging rights . . . and to help a good cause.

The Alzheimer’s Association’s four-member team — dubbed “The Noodles Behind Saving Yours” — gathered last week at office manager Jennifer Blake Waggener’s house to come up with a recipe for the competition.

They figured it would be easy.

“Every good southern girl needs to know how to make a mac and cheese,” Waggener said.

But they quickly discovered that no one had a standard written recipe, however. They all knew the dish so well, they just make it up on the fly. So they began comparing notes.

Kaarmin Ford, the association’s development director, makes what she calls “Thanksgiving mac and cheese.”

It’s a rich, cheesy dish that requires lots of butter and cream. That provided a good starting point for the team’s competition recipe.

Executive director Laurel Kirksey always makes her mac and cheese a little spicy. The group decided to add jalapeno white cheddar and some creole seasoning.

“Sometimes I put peas, tomatoes and ham in mine,” Waggener said.

Her fellow team members were skeptical about the peas and ham, but decided to add some fire-roasted canned tomatoes.

The Noodles vetoed constituent relations coordinator Kelsey Clough’s contribution to the recipe, however.

“I always make mine with high protein and low fat . . . so I got completely overrun,” she said, laughing.

Members agreed they wanted a crispy topping to their mac and cheese, so they bought cornbread stuffing mix to put on top.

Ford suggested mixing the cornbread stuffing mix with grated Parmesan cheese.

“I think the fat from the cheese will help it to brown and crisp,” she said.

That also gave the Noodles an excuse to add more cheese to the recipe. The idea was quickly approved.

The group tested two types of pasta, Italian cavatappi and mezzi rigatoni, but instead of making two batches, they just cooked the noodles together and pledged to choose between them once the dish emerged from the oven.

The decision was more difficult than they expected. Once the dish was out of the oven and into their bowls, none of the members could pick a favorite. They opted to just use both varieties in the competition.

“I’m not going to lie. This doesn’t suck,” Ford said.

The Noodles didn’t make many changes to the recipe, really.

Other than agreeing the cheese mixture should be a little less thick — a problem they plan to remedy by adding a little more milk — the dish they prepare at Saturday’s competition will be the same one they tried in Waggener’s kitchen.

Except a lot larger. The Noodles made about a pound of macaroni and cheese for their test run. Teams must make 10 pounds for the competition.

“That’s daunting,” Ford said.

Holly Martin, executive director of the Childhood Language Center, said the group came up with its mac and cheese cook-off because it wanted to revamp its fundraising efforts with a fun, family-friendly event that also involved community members.

“It’s different, it’s unique, and everybody loves mac and cheese,” she said. “Everyone I talk to is so excited.”

The center provides speech and language therapy for nearly 100 children from eight counties, at no cost to the families.

“We’re treating more kids than we ever have,” Martin said. “Some families will drive two hours round trip every week to get here.”

She said there are 15 children on the center’s waiting list — the lowest it has ever been — but demand continues to increase for the center’s services. Just a few years ago, they were treating only 70 children.

“That means we need to continue with our fundraising, donations and grants,” she said.

The event also is meant to raise awareness about autism, a disorder that affects many of the Childhood Language Center’s patients.

While therapists work with children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, hearing impairments, speech impediments and language delays, Martin said a quarter of their patients have been diagnosed with autism. That percentage is even higher when Asperger syndrome and similar conditions are included.

“It’s unfortunately continuing to grow as a public health need,” she said.

There is no known cause or treatment for autism, but Martin said therapy can really help children’s progress with communication problems and social skills.

The center scheduled its inaugural mac and cheese cook-off for April to coincide with Autism Awareness Month.

The team competition will work much the same as a chili cook-off.

The public will trade tickets for sample cups of macaroni, and use special coins to vote for their favorite. Tickets are two for $1, and each set comes with a voting coin.

The cook-off also will include a “hometown cooks” category.

Competitors in this category will prepare two quarts of their macaroni for tasting by the judges.

Officials will then pick first, second and third prize winners to receive cash prizes of $250, $150 and $75, respectively. Mrs. Central West Virginia Ashley Dunkle also will hand out awards and prize packs.

Registration for teams is closed, but individual competitors have until Thursday to enter the “hometown cooks” category.

Registration for the hometown cooks category is $25. For more information or to register, call 304-342-78552 or visit www.childhoodlanguagecenter.org.

In addition to the competition, the event also will include lots of events for children including Zumba for Kids, macaroni jewelry making and healthy cooking activities. Musicians from Friends of Old Time Music and Dance will perform from noon to 3 p.m.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or zack.harold@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

A ha! Macaroni and cheese

n Editor’s note: This macaroni and cheese recipe was excerpted from a 2008 Food Guy column.

2 lbs. elbow macaroni

12 eggs

1 cup cubed Velveeta cheese

2 sticks butter, melted

6 cups half-and-half

4 cups sharp yellow cheddar cheese, grated

2 cups sharp white cheddar cheese, grated

1 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, grated

1 cup Asiago cheese, grated

1 cup Gruyere cheese, grated

1 cup Monterrey Jack cheese, grated

1 cup Muenster cheese, grated

1/8 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bring large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add macaroni and cook until still slightly al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain, set aside and cover to keep warm.

2. Whisk eggs in a large bowl until frothy. Add Velveeta, butter and two cups of the half-and-half. Add warm macaroni and toss until all thecheese melts and mixture is smooth. Add remaining half-and-half, three cups of the sharp yellow cheddar, all remaining grated cheeses, salt and pepper, tossing until completely combined.

3. Pour mixture into a 13-by-9-by-2-inch casserole dish and bake for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with remaining cup of sharp yellow cheddar and bake until golden brown on top, about 30 minutes more. Serve hot.

Serves 12-16

From 2008 Heart & Soul Dip Dinner winner Beth Kerns (“borrowed” from “Delilah’s Everyday Soul: Southern Cooking with Style” by Delilah Winder)

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