Mac ‘n Cheese: Variations on a Comfort Food Classic

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Canadians each eat about three boxes of KD every year, easily making it the country’s most iconic dish. While the word “macaroni,” a catch-all Italian term for any “tubular” pasta, had been around for quite a while, let’s remember that J. L. Kraft left his Ontario dairy farm for Chicago in the early 1900s with a plan for cheese. The rest is history.

Today, there are few better-loved comfort foods than mac ‘n’ cheese, nor are there many dishes that are more flexible for, and amenable to, introducing a variety of ingredients and flavours.

Many macs might start with the classical but the simplest of “Mother Sauce” preparations: a roux of flour, butter and milk that becomes the luscious Béchamel. That forms the creamy base for ingredients and seasonings like cayenne pepper, paprika, dry mustard and thyme. From there, the possibilities are endless when it comes to proteins like smoked meats or just vegetables.

Mac ‘n’ cheese dishes around Waterloo Region

Kentucky Bourbon and Barbecue, Waterloo 
They call it double-smoked bacon mac-cheese, and at this Waterloo establishment on King Street, between Spring and Young streets, it includes onion strings and crushed, flaming-hot Cheetos. “Our mac and cheese gives a spin to an item that is popular at a lot of restaurants,” according to Kentucky Bourbon and Barbecue manager Adam Cole. “I had a similar mac once and loved the idea.” They start with the Béchamel and use smoked aged Cheddar, Gruyere, a shredded cheese blend, and heavy cream. Cole says the rest is their in-house smoked pork belly or the restaurants other smoked meats. “But if you want your mac simple, you can modify it to regular,” Cole says.

SOS BBQ, Kitchener
The mac ‘n’ cheese at SOS BBQ comes as a regular side for their smoked meats or in a family size. They sell a lot of it, according to owner Dave Wilson. “It’s elbow macaroni and three cheeses, milk and butter and is seasoned with onion, garlic, salt and a touch of white pepper,” he says. “It’s a creamy sauce, not baked. More like a sauce on pasta when we combine it.” The dish isn’t as popular as the fries that fly out of SOS but close, adds Wilson. “My barbecue experience includes down in Alabama where I had similar mac and cheese. We tried it here and adjusted it to what worked for our kitchen. It’s gone over big with customers.”  

Fat Sparrow Market Place, St. Jacobs
Fat Sparrow Group’s comforting mac ‘n’ cheese with old Cheddar and creaminess is topped with buttery herbed breadcrumbs, and the classic “Mother Sauce” of culinary history. “Our regular mac is really a rich Béchamel-based dish, and we don’t skimp on the stick-to-your-ribs quality,” says FSG chef-owner Nick Benninger. The dish is “embellished” with a blend of Cheddar, Parmesan, Provolone and Mozzarella, he says. “It’s topped with more Béchamel and cheese and then buttered breadcrumbs.” The mac ‘n’ cheese is frozen for easy at-home use.”

That takes care of the “regular” mac: Benninger says their ghost pepper mac gets an addition of roasted bell peppers, onion and FSG’s ghost-pepper hot sauce, before the creamy topping, more cheese and breadcrumbs. “It’s really tasty and not as spicy as the name suggests – that’s because of all the creaminess of course,” adds Benninger. Like all chefs, FSG cooks search for perfection. “Even the mac ‘n’ cheese is a constant evolution. Watch our website for the newest release,” Benninger says.

Lancaster Smokehouse, Kitchener 
Made with milk, butter, cream and buttermilk, the Lanc’s mac ‘n’ cheese is, according to chef and co-owner Tim Borys, “a very creamy mac that is cooked to order and not baked. I prefer this technique.” The recipe has a history of evolution, he adds. “It began here at the Smokehouse and not our original Hog Tails restaurant. Since we started preparing it, it has been our most popular side.” The Lanc’s mac ‘n’ cheese used to include crawfish, Borys says, and has had a number of variations over the years. “We’ve done it with Panko, bacon, blue cheese, seafood and jalapeños, but the original recipe hasn’t been changed.”

Beertown Public House, Waterloo  
Beertown might be an ultimate choice for a wide variety of interesting beers, but it also claims an ultimate mac ‘n’ cheese: roasted chicken, smoked bacon, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and a Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese sauce. Chef Danielle Hanna says the mac ‘n’ cheese has always been one of the best-selling dishes at the restaurant. “We add a few extra ingredients that give it true depth of flavour beyond the classic,” she says. Smokey bacon is cooked to order and then house-roasted chicken and mushrooms are cooked in garlic oil and thyme. “After these components are sizzling, we pour on our house-made Parmesan Mornay sauce ( Béchamel with cheese added) and add more cheese with a blend of Mozzarella and Fontina. Large corkscrew cavatappi noodles are tossed right before the Mac is plated,” according to Hanna who says the dish is then, ultimately, garnished with confit cherry tomatoes, toasted panko bread crumbs and parsley. “It really is a bowl of comfort best enjoyed out at a restaurant – or for curbside pickup at this point – where you let one of our cooks do all the work for you,” she says.

By the way, a variation of this dish is available on the Beertown gluten-free menu.   

Cambridge Restaurant, Preston Towne Centre
This could easily vie for mac ‘n’ cheese central in Waterloo Region. Chef-owner Josh Hayward’s baked mac ‘n’ cheese is curly Scoobi Doo pasta and creamy cheese sauce topped with a blend of cheese and baked and served with garlic bread. “Mac and cheese is the epitome of comfort food. When I think back to my childhood, it was always a staple whether being homemade by mom or dad, or quick out of the box,” says chef-owner Josh Hayward.

Hayward then adds to the creamy-cheesy blend a half-dozen variations and specialty macs ‘n’ cheese: pulled pork, chili, Greek, chicken bacon ranch, big smoke and jambalaya with shrimp, sausage and Cajun seasoning. “Mac and cheese is the perfect vessel to add ingredients to,” says Hayward. “It can take on so many delicious flavours, from meats and seafood to being simply vegetarian.”


Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.


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