Table scraps 

Battling it out in the test kitchen with three kinds of boxed Mac ’n’ Cheese

We’ve all been there — you have about $20 in your bank account until payday (which is five days away), and the cupboards are bare. Suddenly, you spy salvation in a dusty corner — a trusty box of Kraft Dinner.

While some may groan at the mere thought of this packaged noodley dish, others become genuinely nostalgic over this tried and true favourite.

Now, I’m not particularly averse to the odd box of KD, though I can’t imagine making it a staple of my diet, but some people are particularly passionate about it, even developing their own special recipes using the boxed classics. I’m fairly certain my younger brother survived on a steady diet of KD and chopped hot dogs, which he fondly dubbed, “Yellow Death and Wieners,” for a solid year of his life (he was a fussy eater).

And the combinations get more elaborate. One of my co-workers, who shall remain nameless, swears by her recipe of white cheddar KD, mixed with a tin of tuna and corn, while another makes a “gourmet” version, adding chopped green pepper and tomato, real shredded marble cheese, salsa and Frank’s red hot sauce. That’s dedication.

Kraft also has an elaborate website dedicated to their flagship product, complete with a list of recipes, and tips and trick on how to transform the popular dish. According to the site, ketchup, barbecue sauce, mustard, relish, sour cream, chutney and shredded lettuce are some other popular KD toppings.

But it isn’t always a simple matter of plucking that familiar navy blue and yellow box off the shelf — the aisles of the grocery store are crammed with imitators offering their version of KD. Now, not only do you have to choose the brand, you have to decide if you feel like egg noodles, spirals or shells, and if you’re in the mood for extra creamy, sharp cheddar, alfredo, cheese and tomato, white cheddar, or the deluxe three and four cheese versions.

So my friend, Lindsey, and I decided to compare a few of the options available out there. We whipped up a pot of President’s Choice White Cheddar ($0.76), the original Kraft Dinner ($1.16), and Annie’s Wisconsin Shells and Cheddar ($1.50).

We contemplated washing the noodles down with a glass of wine, but settled on a traditional ice-cold glass of milk, instead.

While our little experiment wasn’t exactly scientific, we tried to prepare each exactly according to the directions, which neither of us had ever done before. I usually just wing it, adding a splash of milk and butter. (Note: never actually use six cups of water in preparation, your pot will boil over, making a huge mess.) We also both enjoy a bit of ketchup on our mac ’n] cheese, but since we didn’t want to distort the flavours we took one for the team and sampled the lot sans-tomato sauce, first.

Our findings were surprising.

The most expensive kind, Annie’s, which boasts “real cheese” ingredients on the front of the box, was our least favourite. Or, as Lindsey succinctly stated after taking about two bites, then restlessly pushing the remaining noodles around with her fork: “Annie’s is like the brussel sprouts of my plate.” It was so tasteless she actually thought I had forgotten to add the sauce.

On the plus side, after adding ketchup, it was a bit better, and we both liked the shape of the shells, and the fact that the opening on the box was a bunny butt.

The original, Kraft Dinner, came in a solid second place with a pleasant overall taste and consistency, though I was, as usual, a bit put off by the unnaturally vibrant shade of the cheese mix; I’m fairly certain cheese is not supposed to be neon orange. Surprisingly, according to the nutritional information on all three boxes, Kraft Dinner is actually the least bad for you, though the serving size is actually slightly smaller than Annie’s and PC’s. It has less fat and fewer calories than the other two, and more fibre than Annie’s, though I suspect if the colour of the cheese is any indication, it may also contain more chemicals than the others.

The winner, by a landslide, was the PC’s White Cheddar, which was also the cheapest of the lot. Boasting real macaroni shells, the texture was more substantial than the softer Kraft Dinner, and the white cheddar was far more flavourful. This was definitely the best “naked” — without ketchup — and we decided that, if push came to shove, it’s the only one we could bear to eat every night for a full week, if we had to.

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