For a lot of people, macaroni and cheese recalls the simple pleasures of childhood, when all it took was the sight of that blue box to get you excited. But now you're an adult, and you're capable of doing more for yourself than just boiling water. Where do you go from here? The answer: Everywhere. High-quality mac and cheese can be a fantastic centerpiece of any meal, thanks not only to a variety of recipes and cooking techniques but to the flavorful and often surprising additions you can make to the dish. From meats to cheeses to overlooked spices, it's possible to give your homemade mac a serious kick, which will especially come in handy if you're a college student on a budget. Let these suggestions rock your world. Trust me.
These are the toppings you know and love.
- Beef: Turn an ordinary dish of mac and cheese into a hearty meal fit for anyone with the addition of some fresh ground beef.
- Lobster: Seafood makes a light but wholesome addition to the noodles and cheese.
- Hot dogs: Hot dogs make a great partner to traditional macaroni and cheese. Another great idea is to bake the noodles into a casserole and use hot dog slices to create a "polka dot" effect.
- Tabasco sauce: Still one of the simplest and tastiest ways to increase the heat factor.
- Spam: The salty hunk of pork shoulder (or something) is an acquired taste for some but a childhood staple for others. Toss in some cooked chunks with your mac and cheese for a filling entree.
- Bacon: Mmmm, bacon. Full of bacony goodness.
- Ham: The salty ham balances the sweeter cheeses, and you can also add in dijon mustard for an extra kick.
Give your mac and cheese a healthy edge with these add-ons.
- Carrots: By adding carrots, you not only give your mac and cheese a compelling flavor boost, you also ramp up the Vitamin A content.
- Leeks: The sweetness of the leeks in this recipe balances nicely with the sharpness of the cheddar.
- Vegan mac: Non-dairy milk, tofu, and tamari combine with other smart ingredients to make this one of the healthiest possible ways to prepare yourself some mac and cheese.
- Broccoli: Steamed broccoli is great for you, and adding it to mac gives the dish a heartier feel without making it heavy.
- Whole wheat pasta: An easy but fantastic substitution. All the taste but a whole lot less guilt.
- Peas: Like broccoli, the fresh veggie taste of peas goes great with the creaminess of the macaroni dish. They've also got plenty of vitamins: A, C, B1, B2, and B6.
- Tuna: Tuna has a light taste, which makes it a good pairing with mac and cheese. It also packs loads of lean protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Black beans: Beans have a naturally earthy taste that hits nicely against cheese, and they also increase your fiber.
- Low-fat cheese: A lot of times, making foods healthy just means using better ingredients. Case in point: low-fat cheese. Tastes the same, and it's better for you than the regular stuff.
- Squash: The tasty squash also makes this version of mac and cheese extra creamy, so it's great for younger children who might be resistant to healthy options.
- Zucchini and almonds: All the simple pleasure of comfort food, plus vital nutrients you didn't know you were missing. Low-fat and delicious.
- Spinach: By adding spinach and using low-fat milk and whole wheat pasta, you can drastically reduce the calories in macaroni as well as add folate and fiber.
- Chicken and broccoli: Adding some lean chicken and healthy veggies, as well as using whole-wheat pasta, is a great way to improve the health qualities of the meal.
Because life's too short to not have fun.
- Cornbread and apples: Topping your mac with apple slices gets you a nice fruit blast, while the cornbread crumbles feed your indulgent side. It's like eating a compromise and winning.
- Deep frying: It's no surprise that Southern food guru Paula Deen offers this heart-challenging but tasty version of traditional mac.
- Crock pot mac: Add mushroom and celery soups to noodles, beef, and Velveeta to get what the author calls "heart attack mac."
- Grilled cheese: It's possible — albeit probably dangerous — to add mac and cheese to a grilled cheese sandwich. Gotta be worth trying once, right?
There's more to mac than just American or cheddar cheese.
- Gouda and Swiss: A rich, extra cheesy spin on the dish.
- Gruyere: A mild and slightly sweet cheese, gruyere pairs nicely with fresh pasta.
- Goat cheese: Goat cheese, made from goat's milk (shocking), is just tart enough to give you a whole new appreciation of mac and cheese.
- Blue cheese: The tang of blue cheese is a welcome departure from the more typical mildness of American. Definitely worth checking out.
- Monterey Jack: Mixing Monterey Jack with cheddar and mustard makes for a special mac and cheese blend. You can also add hot sauce to taste.
Some of these are totally out of left field, but they're all worthy trying.
- Buffalo chicken: If you've ever had a hankering to mix spicy chicken with your mac and cheese, you're apparently not alone.
- Caramelized sweet potato, garlic, and rosemary: This inventive recipe comes from Angie Phillips, who won the grand prize at the 2008 Tillamook Macaroni & Cheese Cook-Off, which sounds like heaven on Earth.
- Pizza: Doubling the joy of mac and cheese by marrying it to the joy of pizza should be illegal. So, so good.
- Shrimp cocktail: The infusion of shrimp and the margarita-style presentation make this version of mac and cheese into a one-of-a-kind dessert.
- Crawfish: These crustaceans, popular in the South, will give your mac and cheese a spicy seafood punch.
- Penne: This mac and cheese gets rid of the actual mac, substituting penne pasta for a different but tasty approach.
- Croque Monsieur: A croque monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but by chopping up the ham and bread, you can transform mac and cheese into a crunchier and more robust offering.
- Apples and gorgonzola: Using a different cheese than normal and including fresh apple chunks makes for a creamy but enjoyably tart dish.
- Paella with shrimp and scallops: Seafood makes a popular addition to mac and cheese, but this recipe takes it up a notch by mixing the whole brew into a yummy (seriously) paella.
- Pot pies: Turning your mac and cheese into pot pies requires some smart planning, but it's worth it. This treat won first place at San Francisco's Food Wars 2009 Mac Battle Royale With Cheese.
- "Neapolitan-style" colors: This one's a bit of a cheat — it uses ditalini instead of macaroni — but the potatoes, onions, bacon, tomatoes, and provols cheese make it a mouth-watering reinvention of a classic.
- Soufflee: The addition of eggs and milk can turn ordinary mac and cheese into a fluffy appetizer.
- Pesto and goat cheese: Adding pesto and substituting goat cheese for traditional cheddar or American puts a zesty spin on an old favorite.
- Jalapenos, red peppers, cayenne pepper: You want spicy mac? This is spicy mac. Swap in some pepper jack cheese, add some spices and peppers, and get ready to sweat through the best dinner ever.
- Green chiles: Using green chiles in your macaroni will give your food a Tex-Mex flavor (in other words, it will be wonderful).
- Steamed asparagus: Chop it up into inch-long segments and mix well with your macaroni. An unusual but healthy way to liven up the dish.
- Pancetta and portobello mushrooms: Pancetta (dried pork) and portobello mushrooms will instantly add a gourmet level of flair to your mac and cheese. Perfect for entertaining/
- Ground turkey: Between the pound (!) of ground turkey and the hot sauce, this mac and cheese bake will feed a family of six (or two parents and one teenage boy).
- Toast: Well, kinda. This addition is actually a recipe that requires you to have already made some baked mac and cheese, then leave the leftovers in the fridge overnight before cutting it into "slices." Still, an awesome way to spice up day-old food.
- Italian sausage: Another great meat to add to creamy noodles and cheese is Italian sausage; go spicy for an extra kick.
- Roast chicken sausage meatballs: Turn a modest mac and cheese dish into a killer (and filling) meal by topping it with succulent meatballs.