The weather outside is frightful, but mac and cheese season is sure delightful
By Amelia Compton Wolff and Claire Diamond
When it comes to winter comfort food, macaroni and cheese is king. From spicy andouille sausage to brewhouse beer, mac and cheese preparations in the Fox Cities run the gamut. Here are six versions that caught our eye.
Mac and Beer Cheese
Stone Arch Brewpub, Appleton
Assistant General Manager Lucas Maggard says the mac and beer cheese starts with spicy andouille sausage that is sautéed in the brewery’s own pilsner for a flavor that’s reminiscent of a tailgate party. Next comes bacon and cavatappi noodles that are coated in a beer cheese blend which includes colby jack, munster, pepper jack, gouda and parmesan.
Cavatappi noodles are ideal as their spiral shape grabs the cheese sauce so each bite is maximized in its cheesiness. The dish, which is topped with bacon, more cheese and toasted breadcrumbs, is one of the menu’s mainstays and a customer favorite year round.
“It’s actually kind of obscene how much we go through. We’ve been through a number of menu changes and that item has persevered,” Maggard says. “I have people in 90 degree weather sitting in the beer garden eating mac and cheese as well as when it’s 10 degrees below zero in February. Cheeseheads are cheeseheads.”
Maggard recommends pairing the mac and beer cheese with Stone Arch’s versatile Scottish Ale or Sessions Pale Ale which stands up nicely to the heat from sausage.
Smokehouse Mac Bake
Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza, Menasha
Barbecue restaurants are well known sources of exceptional mac and cheese, and Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza in Menasha definitely delivers. In addition to offering their house mac and cheese as a side to any sandwich or entree on the menu, hungry diners can choose from two anted up versions: the loaded mac bake and smokehouse mac bake.
The loaded mac bake is topped with bacon, diced tomato, green onion, cheddar and mozzarella cheese. The whole thing is sprinkled with garlic buttered breadcrumbs and stone fired in a pizza oven until the crust is crispy and golden brown. The smokehouse mac bake takes all that and adds the smoked protein of your choosing which includes either pork, brisket, burnt ends, turkey or andouille sausage.
Dean Elvert, executive culinary operations manager for Parker John’s, says the restaurant goes through anywhere from 300 to 400 pounds of mac and cheese each week. Elvert’s favorite preparation is the smokehouse mac bake with brisket.
“We really shine on our brisket,” he says. “We smoke it for 12 hours, so we get a good bark on there and caramelized flavor.”
Mac and Cheese Sandwich
Appleton Beer Factory
Today it is fairly common to find macaroni and cheese in unusual places, like on pizza and burgers, but Appleton Beer Factory was one of the local pioneers of wacky mac applications.
“My crazy thought was the grilled mac and cheese sandwich,” says chef Leah Fogle. “My sous chef at the time said ‘That’s crazy, no one is going to order a mac and cheese sandwich,’ but history has proven it’s not something people are afraid to order.”
Fogle says the key to this unconventional customer-favorite is the bread. The restaurant’s signature cavatappi mac and cheese is sandwiched between thick slices of Breadsmith’s French peasant bread.
“The French peasant bread is substantial, it can hold the heavy mac and cheese while it gets golden and crisp so you get a really nice crunch,” Fogle says.
The mac and cheese at Appleton Beer Factory is made the old fashioned way with real butter, real cream and cheese that is shredded by hand. “It’s more labor intensive, but there’s high payoff,” Fogle says. It features Vern’s 2-year aged white cheddar, applewood smoked bacon and the brewery’s hefeweizen. The secret ingredient is sour cream which Fogle says helps add creaminess and stability to the recipe.
In addition to the sandwich, mac and cheese can be ordered as a side to any sandwich or burger. The menu also has a mac and cheese flatbread as well as bubbly crocks of beer and bacon mac and cheese, and buffalo bacon mac and cheese. For special events, the restaurant offers versions with andouille sausage, shrimp and lobster.
“We keep playing around with it because it continues to be a favorite. It’s a great vehicle for so many things,” says Fogle, who believes part of the restaurant’s mac and cheese success is due to their geography. “It’s a cheese culture. We are all about cheese, this is Wisconsin. None of us can deny that mac and cheese was a staple of our childhood. It’s so comforting and makes us think of home.”
Homemade Mac and Cheese
Zuppas Market Cafe and Catering, Neenah
Zuppas doesn’t gild the lily – they let high-quality ingredients speak for themselves. Their take on mac and cheese is classic, but elevated. Cavatappi pasta is cloaked in an American, cheddar and parmesan cheese blend and baked. It’s finished with more cheese and heavy cream before being baked again. Finally, the whole thing is (you guessed it) topped with more parmesan before serving.
This much-lauded mac and cheese is an absolute staple at Zuppas. Owner Peter Kuenzi says the mac and cheese can be ordered on its own as an entree or as a side with a sandwich or salad. It’s been on the menu since the establishment opened in 1999 and the dish’s popularity has only grown throughout the years.
“I’d say maybe 75 percent of the orders have mac and cheese involved,” Kuenzi says.
It’s the perfect comfort food that just about anyone can enjoy and is available year-round, any time of day.
MACS Macaroni and Cheese Shop, Appleton
Nick and Jackie Morse launched MACS Macaroni and Cheese shop in Wisconsin Dells in 2013. Today the husband/wife team own and operate seven Wisconsin locations, including a Fox Cities store in Appleton. Nick Morse says every MACS skillet begins with the cheese sauce recipe developed by his father-in-law, Jim Harper.
“That’s the starting point for every dish we make, but it was also the starting point for our business,” Morse says. “If we were going to specialize in one menu item, we knew it had to be absolutely killer. It couldn’t be run of the mill.”
To ensure killer status, the cheese sauce is made in small batches five to 10 times daily. Chefs begin by making a roux with butter and flour and then add the three foundational cheeses – American, mozzarella and white cheddar. Each dish will have the addition of a signature cheese, like munster, pepper jack or provolone, based on what the customer orders. Morse says much of the restaurant’s cheese is sourced locally.
“We wouldn’t have a good mac and cheese if it wasn’t made with Wisconsin cheese,” he says. “We want to support local, but selfishly in our self-interest it wouldn’t be as good if we didn’t.”
In addition to salads and sandwich melts, the menu offers nearly 20 different mac and cheese skillets. Morse’s current favorite is the Hangover Mac which features pepper jack, mozzarella, hash browns, bacon, grilled hot dog slices, sautéed green peppers, onions and mushrooms, and finally a drizzle of Sriracha sauce for a spicy kick.
“It’s not the kind of thing you eat every day, but its one to work toward as a reward.”
In January, MACS began offering zoodles (spiralized zucchini “noodles”) as a low-carb alternative to pasta. Throughout 2020 MACS will be introducing several different speciality skillets. The seasonal chili mac will run through the end of February. Reuben mac will debut in March in time for St. Patrick’s Day and a lobster mac and cheese will be offered in March and April.
Mac and Cheese Burger
The Jerk Joint, Appleton
The Jerk Joint made their move from Kaukauna to Appleton this past August and this came with changes to their menu as well. Owner Roderick Godwin says the mac and cheese burger is just one of many additions. It is clear that The Jerk Joint takes quality very seriously after hearing the extensive process required to make this menu item to perfection.
First, burger patties are seasoned for maximum flavor, then allowed to marinate overnight. They are smoked for 20 minutes and grilled to serve. Next, the burger is topped with homemade mac and cheese as well as homemade jerk sauce. “We probably make 80 percent of it in-house,” Godwin says.
The mac and cheese burger is newer to their menu because they felt like Appleton has a competitive food scene and they want to participate in it. The establishment is incorporating more specialty days such as “meatless Monday” and serving specialty seafood on Wednesdays. The Jerk Joint features other new menu items such as coconut shrimp and Caribbean fish that is seasoned to perfection.