Cashing in on comfort

Tough times call for some serious comfort food, and macaroni and cheese is a staple of that category. That's added up to a nice payday for manufacturers. As a whole, macaroni and cheese sales are up 25 percent over the last four years, to $802 million.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner accounts for the vast majority of category growth, which likely means more parents, willingly or not, have joined their kids in more bright-orange dinners. There are much smaller but also growing competitors, like Annie's, which sells itself on taste as well as natural claims.

Now, Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft wants to bring mac and cheese, launched in the Great Depression, from kids' plates to the center of the family dinner table.

The company had been toying with a homier version of macaroni and cheese for many years, but after watching cheesy, crusty restaurant versions proliferate in recent years, and more people cooking at home to save money, Kraft began work on what is now its Homestyle Macaroni & Cheese Dinner about 18 months ago.

The new mac and cheese comes in a bag and sells at $2.99. It comes with wider, curvier noodles, a packet of gooey orange cheese, breadcrumbs and a seasoning packet, with which cooks make a base for the cheese sauce.

Kraft is also tapping in to a trend of putting personal touches on family dishes by offering an "optional oven finish," involving more cheese and an even-crispier breadcrumb topping, thanks to five minutes in the oven.

In an interview, Kraft chief executive Irene Rosenfeld said the company invested in Homestyle "to bring in the adult user." The iconic mac in the blue box, she said, is a kid favorite.

"Now the opportunity is to expand the brand with product lines like Homestyle ... that really create a terrific, restaurant-quality meal," she said.

Kraft and its competitors understand that after years of casual dining excess, consumers now forced to eat at home to save money aren't interested in sacrificing tastes they've come to love. Meal kits, for example, have become extremely popular. General Mills has sought to create weekly taco nights with its Old El Paso brand and seen sales soar 8 percent over the last fiscal year, according to a company presentation.

But encouraging more regular mac 'n' cheese consumption may require less cajoling. Jeff Landsman, a television editor who lives in Riverwoods, Ill., said he and his family cut back last year on eating out and probably started eating more mac and cheese. Landsman is a fanatic himself, with a podcast called "Mac-Aroni," fusing his love of the dish and an enthusiasm for products made by Apple Inc.

He's turned his daughter, Lilah, 7, and son, Eli, 5, into big fans by developing his own take on the dish: one pot of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and a separate one of Annie's Homegrown Totally Natural Shells & White Cheddar, stirring them together at the last minute and then sprinkling the mixture with more cheese. He makes "Daddy Mac" on request, usually Sunday afternoons, when his wife, Marla, is teaching class. She makes blue-box mac some weeknights.

"We're not the chicken nugget and hot dog family at all," Landsman said, adding that his children will eat vegetables like squash. However, he said, "When you're budgeting, you go to the grocery store and you're looking for the best way to stretch the dollar, and you try to have a balanced meal."

Emily Paster, of River Forest, said her daughter, Zoe, is allergic to dairy, but macaroni & cheese is "one of the five foods" her son, Jamie, will eat. And so she makes a box of Annie's Shells for him a few times a week.

But would she sub the regular macaroni for the Homestyle version? "I'd certainly take a look at it," she said. "It sounds kinda good."

Whether you choose to try the new Homestyle product or dig into a homemade version, you're tapping into a time-honored tradition for any family looking for familiar comfort food.

Spiced-Up Macaroni and Cheese

This version of mac and cheese doesn't require boiling the pasta first.

1 cup cottage cheese (not low fat)

2 cups milk (not skim)

1 teaspoon ground mild chile pepper

1 teaspoon anise seed

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2teaspoon salt

1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated

8 oz. Monterey Jack cheese, grated

1/2lb. elbow pasta, uncooked

1/4cup plain breadcrumbs

1/4cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Blend together the cottage cheese, milk, chile pepper, anise seed, mustard, salt and pepper in a blender until smooth. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack cheese and pasta. Grease an 8-inch square or round baking dish. Pour the pasta mixture into the dish. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes.

While the macaroni and cheese is baking, mix the breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and basil in a small bowl. Add the oil and toss to combine. Remove the macaroni and cheese from the oven and carefully stir. Evenly sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the macaroni and cheese. Return the macaroni and cheese to the oven and bake, uncovered, for 10 minutes, or until browned. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

From "The Spice Kitchen" cookbook

The Wichita Eagle—09/29/10

Larry's Macaroni and Cheese

1 lb. small elbow macaroni

7 tablespoons butter

3/4cup flour plus 2 tablespoons

1/3cup minced onion

4 oz. finely shredded Parmesan cheese

Heaping 1/2 teaspoon oregano

Heaping 1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

Heaping 1/2 teaspoon salt

Heaping 1/2 teaspoon pepper

Pinch nutmeg

2 1/2 cups cream

3/4cup milk

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil and add the macaroni. Cook until the macaroni is al dente, 8 to 10 minutes, or according to the instructions on the packaging. Drain and set aside.

While the water is coming to a boil, in a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, and cook, whisking to form a blond roux (the mixture will be very stiff at first, but will loosen slightly as the flour is hydrated), about 2 minutes.

Whisk in the onion, then the cheese, oregano, Old Bay, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Whisk the cream and milk in slowly until fully incorporated.

Cook the mixture at a very gentle simmer, stirring frequently to cook out the flour taste, about 20 minutes (scrape the bottom of the pan occasionally to prevent the flour from sticking).

In a large bowl, toss the pasta with the cheese sauce. Place the mixture in a 3-quart casserole and bake until warmed through and lightly toasted on top, about 30 minutes. Cool a few minutes before serving. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Adapted from the Ahwahnee restaurant in Yosemite National Park.

Each of 8 servings: 682 calories; 17 g protein; 56 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 44 g fat; 27 g saturated fat; 145 mg cholesterol; 3 g sugar; 412 mg sodium.

The Wichita Eagle—09/29/10

Updated Macaroni & Cheese

3 tablespoons plain dry breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4teaspoon paprika

1 pkg. (16- or 10-oz.) frozen spinach

1 3/4 cups 1 percent milk, divided

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese

1 cup low-fat (1 percent) cottage cheese

1/8teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

8 oz. whole-wheat elbow macaroni or penne

Put a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat an 8-inch square (2-quart) baking dish with cooking spray.

Mix breadcrumbs, oil and paprika in a small bowl. Cook spinach according to package directions. Drain and refresh under cold water; press out excess moisture.

Heat 1 1/2 cups milk in a large heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until steaming. Whisk remaining 1/4 cup milk and flour in a small bowl until smooth; add to the hot milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce simmers and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Cheddar until melted. Stir in cottage cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Cook pasta for 4 minutes, or until not quite tender. (It will continue to cook during baking.) Drain and add to the cheese sauce; mix well. Spread half the pasta mixture in the prepared baking dish. Spoon the spinach on top. Top with the remaining pasta; sprinkle with the breadcrumb mixture.

Bake the casserole until bubbly and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

The Wichita Eagle—09/29/10