It's Macaroni and Cheese - Without the Box!

A North Carolina food blogger has been making headlines for her crusade to get the dyes out of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

On her blog Food Babe, Vani Hari wondered why Kraft Foods continues to use Yellow #5 and #6, the food coloring that gives its Original mac & cheese that iconic shade of neon orange. After all, she pointed out, Kraft reformulated Cheesey Pasta, its British counterpart, to eliminate dyes which have been linked to ADHD and behavioral problems in children. Why not, she asked, extend the same gesture to mac n’ cheese lovers on this side of the Atlantic?

Along with fellow blogger Lisa Leake, who writes 100 Days of Real Food, Hari launched a petition in March that generated more than 270,000 signatures, a slew of publicity and most recently, face time with Kraft executives at corporate headquarters in Chicago.

At the end of a video explaining their campaign, the petitioners suggest three ways to get involved. The third suggestion: “Vote with your dollars by choosing macaroni and cheese and other products from brands that do not use artificial dyes.”

And that’s when I stopped in my tracks. Don’t get me wrong: it’s insidious and unconscionable that Kraft uses food dye in products that are heavily marketed to children. And there ought to be a label on products containing food dyes warning consumers of their potential health risks.

If nothing else, Food Babe’s efforts to speak truth to power have created additional buzz over what’s on supermarket shelves. But the answer is not swapping out one box of food-like substances for another.

If I’m going to vote with my dollars and give the big corporate food machine a piece of my mind, it won’t be by way of switching brands and showing my love for the other pre-fabbed contenders on the shelves. I’m going to preheat the oven, grease a baking dish and make my own. 

You might be wondering how much you’d have to shell out for a homemade endeavor. Compared to a box of packaged mac, which runs about $1.50 for three servings, nearly anything will seem pricey. I did the math for a recent batch of homespun mac, and the tally came to $8.99 !

But back to that pre-fabbed blue box: You get what you pay for. I heated up the contents of one box and took a bite. I was expecting my forkful of day-glo pasta squigglies to be a rush of salt like a  Cool Ranch Dorito or the fake cheese sensation that comes from a handful of Cheez-Its.

The blue box-ed bite? It tastes like nothing – as in no flavor whatsoever. It was more than bland; it was neutered.

So tell me so I understand: Other than the 50-cent-per-serving price tag, what exactly is there to love about America’s so-called favorite mac?

The recipe below serves six hearty portions, which translates to $1.50 per serving. Imagine then, for $1 more per serving, you can feed your family an American comfort food classic with a handful of ingredients that you can actually pronounce and a main dish that actually tastes like food rather than food-like substances. A dish that allows family to cook together and talk and catch up on the day while the mac is bubbling away in the oven for 30 minutes and making the house smell heavenly.

No culinary degree is required, but in case it’s been a while since you cranked up the oven, we’ve got you covered, with photos documenting every step of the way. If one creamy forkful doesn’t have you beaming with pride and shouting “priceless!”, then you can kick me to the curb instead of the blue box.


Macaroni and Cheese
Adapted from The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook by Kim O’Donnel

2 cups elbow macaroni
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 12 cups whole or low-fat milk
1 12 teaspoons dry mustard
14  teaspoon ground black pepper
14  teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
14  teaspoon ground cayenne
2 12 cups grated cheese of choice (cheddar, Gruyere, provolone, jack are all nice options)
14 to 12 cup dry bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the sides of a 3-quart glass or ceramic baking dish (or 2 smaller baking dishes).

Bring 2 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon of the salt to a boil. Cook the macaroni until al dente, about 5 minutes. Drain the pasta and transfer to the prepared dish. Drizzle the oil over the pasta and toss to coat, so that the pasta stays lubricated while it waits.

In a medium-size saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour, and with a wooden spoon, stir quickly to combine and form a roux. Continue to stir, and cook for about 1 minute, making sure that any flour lumps disappear. The roux will be a golden yellow color.

Add the milk, mustard, remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne, and stir to combine. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon to make sure that the milk does not scald, until the mixture is thickened. The mixture is ready when you can run a prominent streak along the back of the spoon with your finger, about 10 minutes. Add the cheese, and stir or whisk constantly until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps.

Pour the cheese sauce over the macaroni to cover evenly. Cover the top with the breadcrumbs.

Place the dish in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, until the cheese begins to bubble at the edges. To crisp up the breadcrumb topping, place the dish under the broiler setting for about 1 minute. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.

Makes about 6 servings.