Making a Crunchy Topping
In writing my mac‑and‑cheese column I tried to anticipate readers' questions, and one of these concerned the crunchy crust of the oven‑baked dish. Or rather its absence, since camp kitchens don't often have ovens. Here's what I had to say on the subject:
I miss the crunchy topping of oven‑baked mac and cheese. Is there some way to get this in camp? Sort of. You can garnish each serving with a few croutons, or crush a few crackers over each plate when the dish is served (Triscuits work well for this). Walnut pieces or other nuts will add crunch, too.
Reader Bob Lippold had a better idea, however:
Sprinkle a bunch of Parmesan on top and use one of the small butane torches (we all carry those while camping don't we?) to crust‑up the top. I haven't tried it with mac 'n' cheese, but that's the way I put a crust on crème brûlée.
I couldn't help but be impressed. Any backcountry cook whose menus include crème brûlée has earned the right to wear a chef's toque. And many chefs — not to mention enthusiastic home cooks — have a small kitchen torch in their gadget drawers. To my shame, I'd never thought of using one for crisping the top of mac and cheese, but I don't see why it couldn't be done. In fact, I'm going to give it a go. I wouldn't recommend trying it when there's a high risk of wildfires, though!
But what if you don't happen to have a butane torch in your kitchen pack? What other ways can be found to give mac and cheese that final, crispy touch? Ric Altfather has an idea:
I have a suggestion about how to get a crispy topping. Try Japanese panko bread crumbs, which are sturdy and crunchy, perfect for the outback. You owe it to yourself to try them. I did a year ago and will not go back. I'm an avid paddler and really enjoy camping. Combine the two and you have perfection. Sometimes, though, the camp menu doesn't really work well, or the flavor just isn't there. I have tried flour and regular bread crumbs as toppings or fillers with so‑so results depending on the camping conditions. But then I tried panko at home with some fresh perch that was caught here in Lake Erie. WOW! The fish was so crunchy. The panko held in the flavor and added so much to the dish.
Here are some of the ways I use panko crumbs:
- Just add as a topping to mac and cheese. The panko crumbs mix in with the cheese and get really crunchy, with no added fat and NO pre‑browning!
- Mix an Italian herb blend — or any other herb or spice blend — with panko crumbs for added flavor.
- Coat your veggies in the panko and then sauté. Mmm!
- Mix hot pasta with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and panko. A bigger Mmm!
- Use panko even with dessert. Make your favorite fruit crisp and substitute the flour portion with panko.
Try panko crumbs. I know you will like them. They travel so well and become crunchy when cooked, not soggy.
How could I fail to be moved by such a glowing endorsement? I couldn't. So I gave panko crumbs a try. And I found that Ric hadn't exaggerated their virtues. Not one bit. They are wonderfully crispy, and they don't go soggy. In fact, they're now among my inventory of culinary staples, both at home and in camp.
That pretty much settles the question of crisp, though we'll return to it further down the page when we look at ways to improve boxed mac and cheese dinners. But first there's another matter of some importance to backcountry cooks. You can't make mac and cheese without the necessary ingredients, and that means every cook has to answer another question:
And the answer has to be in the affirmative. So my camp‑kitchen mac and cheese recipe calls for dry milk, a readily available staple that's most often found in its nonfat incarnation. Dry milk has a lot going for it. It's light, it travels well, and it's not too expensive. But the flavor… Let's just say it's an acquired taste, shall we? I don't mind it, but I'll never mistake it for the real thing, milk as it comes from the cow. There aren't many alternatives, though. While evaporated and condensed milk were familiar sights in camp kitchens during much of the last century, they, too, are acquired tastes. Both add off‑flavors of their own, and neither has any real advantage over dry milk, at least in my eyes. My conclusion? I simply didn't think that it was worth the trouble to include liquid milk in my food pack.
That was before Lisa put me straight:
I haven't cooked mac and cheese on a trip, but I have made other dishes like Alfredo. I haven't had a lot of luck with evaporated milk as I don't care for the taste. I use the small boxes of milk, instead. At a buck a box, they are a bit pricey, but I only take one or two. They don't have to be refrigerated, they're available in plain or flavored (good for pudding), and they're pre‑measured at one cup. I have also found soy milk sold this way, both plain and chocolate too.
Lisa's letter was an eye‑opener. I've seen aseptic packs of milk in local stores from time to time, but I'd never seriously considered their value to the camp cook. I should have. The combination of ultrapasteurization (also known as ultra‑high‑temperature treatment, or UHT) and aseptic packaging permits liquid milk to be kept for extended periods without refrigeration. And the result tastes like … well, it tastes like milk. Before many years have passed, this may be how most milk is sold. Right now, however, UHT milk is just starting to make its appearance on the shelves of stores in the States, and the HyperMarts in my corner of northern New York stock one‑liter packs only. That limits their utility in camp kitchens, since — in the absence of refrigeration — you have to consume the contents of opened packs in short order. But smaller packs are available from a number of online retailers, and while they're not cheap, they'd be a welcome addition to any paddling cook's food bag, at least on trips that don't involve extended portages. Liquid milk is heavy, and the more you carry, the heavier your pack gets. (Your wallet will be lighter, though.)
Of course, if you're a cook, a few extra pounds in your pack won't make much difference to you. Nor will a few extra minutes spent over the stove, especially if the result is mac and cheese as good as homemade. But what if you just want a decent meal with a minimum of fuss? And come to think of it, even die‑hard foodies occasionally need an evening off from KP. Which is where the familiar boxed macaroni and cheese "dinners" enter the picture. When prepared according to package directions, most are pretty pedestrian fare. They're fuel, rather than food, in other words. Yet determined cooks have often succeeded in …
Improving Commercial Mac and Cheese Dinners
I do this myself, both in camp and at home. And I'm in good company. David Wysocki has given the matter a lot of thought:
Your article moved me to make my augmented Kraft Dinner mac and cheese last night. Essentially, I use the box recipe and add my own shredded cheddar (and sometimes crumbled feta, like last night, as well as grated dry cheese such as Asiago or Parmesan). I then bake the mix in a small baking dish in a countertop convection oven at 450 degrees [Fahrenheit] to get a baked flavor as well as the browned crunchy top (my favorite part). I think my home recipe is something that could work out there in the wild with a few adjustments like these:
- Substitute olive oil for butter or margarine. I have successfully used olive oil (or a combination of oil and butter) at home.
- Use the milk powder you mention with the necessary "reconstituting" water in lieu of liquid milk as directed on the Kraft package.
- Add shredded cheddar cheese and maybe grated dry cheese.
- Bacon bits make a nice addition, too.
Then, when cooking in the wild:
- Boil the noodles in salted water.
- Drain the cooked noodles. Add olive oil and water to the drained noodles. Stir.
- Add milk powder and packaged cheese powder and stir well.
- Add one heaping cup of shredded cheddar (and optional other cheese[s] and/or bacon bits) and stir well.
Needless to say, I think David is onto something. Adding extra cheese is a great way to improve both the flavor and texture of boxed mac and cheese dinners. Bacon bits are a tasty addition, as well. But what about that crispy top? You don't often find a convection oven in a riverbank camp, after all, and even if you remembered to bring your own oven along, you could wear yourself out searching for a current bush. (Especially if you're already exhausted after a long day hunting snipe.) But David isn't so easily defeated:
I also have an idea about how to get a crunchy topping. Well, actually it's a crunchy bottom. I haven't tried it yet, but this is what I was thinking. How about using PAM cooking spray or another high‑heat oil to coat the bottom of the pot, pouring in the mac and cheese mixture, then placing the pot over a low heat with the lid on? In other words, this would be like a slow‑bake, carefully creating a browned crispy "top" but on the bottom of the pot. Then scoop the bottom up and put it on the top of each serving. I'd suggest adding some shredded cheese to the bottom before spooning in the mixture to "bake" on the stovetop, but that may be too much at the bottom of a pot and end up a sticky mess. What do you think?
I thought it was an idea worth exploring, even if I did have some reservations about the extra cheese at the bottom. (You can melt cheese, but if you subject it to continuous direct heat it usually burns.) So I got up from my desk and went into my test kitchen to give David's upside‑down mac and cheese bake a try, though not before making a few modifications, most notably in the form of crushed Triscuits (I had yet to buy any panko). Here are the notes I made at the time:
- Have all the ingredients and equipment ready before starting.
- Bring water to a boil in a 3‑quart pot. Add the macaroni. (I omitted the salt to minimize sodium content.)
- When the macaroni is done, pour ½ cup of the cooking water into a steel cup containing ¼ cup powdered dry milk. Then drain the remaining water from the pasta.
- Stir the milk and water mixture in the cup until you've eliminated all the clumps. Now empty the cooked pasta into a bowl and add both the milk and the packaged powdered cheese sauce from the box. Mix thoroughly.
- Drizzle olive oil over the macaroni and sauce in the bowl. Add a loosely packed cup of shredded cheddar (about 1‑2 ounces). Set to one side.
- Pour just enough olive oil into the bottom of the now‑empty pasta pot to coat it lightly, then spread the fragments from eight crushed Triscuits evenly over the oil.
- Ladle the mac and cheese mix back into the pot, taking care not to disturb the cracker‑crumb layer at the bottom. Cover the pot and heat over a very low flame for five minutes.
- Spoon the mac and cheese into serving bowls. Scrape up the bottom "crust" from the pot and use it as a topping for each helping.
The result? It wasn't an unqualified success, I'm afraid. As you can tell from my notes, the process is rather fussy, requiring as it does two large pots (or a pot and a bowl), plus a good‑sized steel cup, with a fair amount of toing and froing between vessels. My Triscuit upside‑down crust also left a lot to be desired. I should have used at least twice as many Triscuits. Still, the crushed crackers kept their crunch. Here's how my mac and cheese looked, both in the pot (left photo) and dished up: