The Golden Noodle: A Mac 'N' Cheese Smackdown
Hearsay Gastro Lounge Head Chef Nick Banaszak with his smoked gouda mac and cheese -- winner of the Golden Noodle in the "traditional" category.
I should have worn my stretchy pants. I should have known better. Yet, there I found myself, trying macaroni and cheese after macaroni and cheese with no end in sight, trying harder and harder after every bite to keep a poised, ladylike posture while simultaneously using every inkling of strength to suck my stomach in so as to not cause the button and zipper of my slacks to burst, flashing everyone present.
Luckily, I didn't steal the show from macaroni and cheese -- the subject of the second annual National Association for Catering and Events "Golden Noodle" competition, in which 13 different macaroni and cheeses competed for the "Golden Noodle" award in three categories: traditional, creative and dessert. Entries were submitted mostly by local restaurants and catering and event companies, with judging carried out Iron Chef-style at the conclusion of the event by Chef Monica Pope, Chef Michael Nguyen of Master Chef Catering and Chef Chris Carey of Cafe Natalie, along with the audience, who cast votes for the "people's choice."
The catch? The teams had to cook their noodles -- boiling of pasta and béchamel-making excluded -- in 45 minutes, on premise, as event attendees -- mostly catering-industry professionals and supporters -- walked from booth to booth observing and chatting with chefs about their creations. Forty-five minutes may seem like a long time, but it put extra pressure on the chefs, who were dealing with a very limited cooking space, crappy portable cooktops and distractions from people like me.
Nonetheless, every team was able to successfully feed the more than 150 people in attendance, in a timely manner, each producing a special version of one of this country's food staples.
In the traditional category, contestants had to adhere to using only noodles and cheese, and two groups battled it out for the prize. Hearsay Gastro Lounge served their thick and creamy smoked gouda mac and cheese. It was as traditional as macaroni and cheese gets, but so good that it made you melt inside and almost shed a little tear of joy. (In fact, I will go visit Hearsay Gastro Lounge because of it.) Max's Wine Dive submitted their max 'n' cheese -- cavatappi pasta tossed in truffle cream with provolone, gruyère and parmigiano-reggiano, which was quite heavy on the truffle cream, making this mac a little too in-your-face, especially for one that was supposed to be "traditional." This may have been why Hearsay deservedly took the Golden Noodle in this category.
Catering company Behind the Bash's wild mushroom and smoked gouda mac and cheese.
On the other hand, moving into the nontraditional, there was a dessert macaroni and cheese division. Dessert macaroni and cheese is the kind of thing that I have to thank for pushing my mental boundaries and allowing me to see food in a more imaginative way. The entries in this category were sweet in every sense of the word. In an effort to pay homage to the fall season, and make something fun with a recognizable taste, Behind the Bash submitted a candy corn-infused orzo with mascarpone cheese, topped with Pop Rocks. While it seems like it would have been big and bold, the flavors of this dessert were smooth and delicate, and everything had a silky texture to it. This orange-hued mac won the Golden Noodle in the dessert category, but novice team "The Golden Oldies" -- made up of former NACE leaders -- gave Behind the Bash a run for their money with hand-made pumpkin ravioli with spiced mascarpone cream and caramelized pecans.
Of course, many teams were vying for the prize in the "creative" category. Standout candidates included The Tasting Room Kingwood's Mex-N-Cheese -- a tasty, nice little Mexican take on mac and cheese which was composed of orzo pasta, Oaxaca and cotija cheeses, poblano chiles and a bit of pico de gallo for garnish. Braeburn Country Club added to the competition their spinach-artichoke orzo topped with sautéed shrimp -- a beautiful composition that made me want seconds. "Hey Zeus" Mac and Cheese, contributed by Compleat Cuisine Catering, was an interesting Greek and Mexican fusion -- with an adobo-Velveeta-based cheese sauce, cheddar, mozzarella, feta, bread crumbs and an olive tapenade to top it all off. Behind the Bash entered the game in this category as well, with a wild mushroom and smoked gouda macaroni and cheese, a very comforting, grown-up version with a farm-to-table taste and presentation that was definitely enhanced by their rustic booth. The latter won the "people's choice award." Surely their dessert candy corn version helped win over the hearts and the minds of people, too.
Despite all of the marvelous macs competing in the "creative" category, a winner had to be chosen. Drumroll, please......The Golden Noodle went to White Oak Kitchen + Drinks for their mac confit -- an over-the-top, decadent mac made with cave-aged gruyère, garlicky boursin and smoked fontina cheese. And did I mention duck? And duck fat? Holy macaroni and cheese. Lucky for you, you too can feel like a Golden Noodle winner as you craft it and try it for yourself with their official recipe:
White Oak Kitchen + Drinks Mac Confit
- 10 oz gemelli pasta
- 3 oz boursin cheese
- 3 oz cave-aged gruyère
- 3 oz fontina cheese
- 2 duck legs
- 2 oz duck fat
- 12 oz béchamel
- 1 tbsp. chopped garlic
- 1 tbsp. chopped basil, thyme, parsley
- 1 tbsp. white wine
- 1 tbsp. sea salt
- Marinate duck legs with half of garlic, herbs, salt and all of white wine for 24 hours
- Rinse legs and poach at 190F for 4 hours, or until meat is falling off the bone
- Save duck fat, remove meat from bones
- Bring béchamel to a boil, take off and fold in the cheeses
- Fold the cheese sauced into cooked gemelli and add the duck meat
- Panfry brioche bread crumbs in duck fat, add chopped herbs and salt to taste
- Dust the top of gemelli with seasoned bread crumbs and toast in the oven for crust
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