Oh, macaroni and cheese, how many ways can we make thee? On the lawn of Harpoon Brewery in Windsor last Saturday, 19 chefs counted the ways. They wielded the classic elbows, plus penne, ziti, even gemelli. Béchamel, roux or Alfredo sauce served as binder — as well as cheeses ranging from cheddar, WindsorDale and Gruyère to Monterey Jack, Swiss, Manchego and Parmesan. For crusts, the chefs showered their dishes with panko, crumbled crackers or cornbread, and some added smoked sausage, duck confit and sriracha aioli.
The chefs, who had arrived from across Vermont and New Hampshire, pulled out every gun in their culinary arsenals to win the first annual Great Mac-and-Cheese Challenge. If your idea of a perfect September day is sampling unlimited, chef-made mac and cheese — while washing it down with a beer — then you can call this competition five hours of nirvana.
“This is a day off, the day a chef gets to play,” said chef Dan Higgins of the Foundry at Jay Peak Resort, who traveled two hours south to compete. Since Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company created the event, the chefs’ only parameter was that they incorporate at least one cheese from the growing South Woodstock company. Otherwise, their imaginations were the limit.
For Higgins, that meant reaching for Lac Brome duck, which he made into a confit, using the rendered fat “to bring together my crumb.” An Alfredo sauce made with VFCC’s BrickHaus Tilsit — a buttery, Havarti-like cheese — helped bind the elbows, too. The result was casserole-esque with a dark, cakelike crust, which Higgins dolloped with cranberry relish for rich, smoky and vaguely sweet bites of goodness.
Under the tent where Higgins spoke, hundreds of people milled around, trying to figure out how to hit every one of the 19 tables so they could record their impressions on a ballot for the People’s Choice Award. That sheet also listed the VFCC cheese each chef had used and suggested a Harpoon beer pairing. It was a brilliant branding event couched as a festive hoedown, with proceeds slated for the Vermont Foodbank, Sustainable Woodstock and the Vermont Dairy Foundation.
To Higgins’ left stood chef Scot Emerson of the Coleman Brook Tavern at Okemo Mountain, who had chosen a more classic approach — or so it seemed on the surface. But, one bite in, hints of maple crossed the palate. Or was it? “My secret weapon is fenugreek,” Emerson confided. “That’s what gives it that maple aroma.” Along with cheddar and smoked local bacon, Emerson had poured in cream-top milk “for a creamy and light finish.”
When he first came to Okemo, Emerson spent three months perfecting his mac and cheese. “I really had to dial it in,” he said, because the comfort-food staple is one of the most popular wintertime items on his menu.
With no prior experience to go on, the organizers of the Great Mac-and-Cheese Challenge had told the chefs to prepare for 500 people. Instead, twice that number bought $10 tickets ($15 at the door), and by 2 p.m. — three hours in, with two left to go — some vendors were running out of their mac and cheese. Lines formed at tables as rumors spread about particularly scrumptious batches.
Arvad’s Grill & Pub chef Michael Kennedy entertained one such line at a table decorated with his own garden-grown hot peppers along with shiny cans of Heady Topper, with which he had spiked his sauce. “This is like a delicacy!” gushed one woman as she tucked into a tiny plastic cup of the spicy pasta.
Nearby, people hovered at high-top tables, noshing and scribbling notes.
“You should definitely try Singleton’s,” confided Michael Lane of North Hartland, who had valiantly navigated the entire circuit by 2:30 p.m. — with the sole exception of the beer-braised pork belly, broccoli and sriracha aioli mac and cheese served by chef JoJo Paquin of the Flying Goose Brew Pub & Grille in New London, N.H., who ran out of food before Lane could get there.
“You need to go out on a limb with these things,” Paquin said earlier in the event. He had braised pork belly for four hours in the brewpub’s Bacon Schwarzbier, a dark lager that itself is aged with smoked pork belly — creating a closed circle of beerlike porkiness, or porky beerness.
Paquin melted his butter with sriracha, used cheddar for creaminess and sprinkled on a crumbled-cracker crust. The result was dotted with pork-belly crumbles and had a smoldering, spicy finish.
Countering the exuberant earthiness of Paquin’s mac and cheese was the crisp elegance of the version made by Hanover Inn chef Justin Dain, who carefully composed each mini plate of orecchiette, or “little ears.” Dain had coated the pasta in an almost snow-white Béchamel, along with melted cheddar and Manchego. He then crisscrossed each plate with chipotle aioli and a shower of crumbly, crispy ham and minced chives for contrasting textures and salty and spicy flavors.
Equally delicious options were found at other tables. The chefs from Home Hill Inn & Restaurant topped floppy gemelli pasta with BrickHaus Tilsit, pulled pork and a cornbread crust. Smoked Andouille sausage topped the version from Ludlow’s Castle Hill Resort & Spa. The Kedron Valley Inn in South Woodstock wielded alehouse mustard, Harpoon IPA, four types of cheese and a focaccia crust for its tangy, gut-filling dish — one of few vegetarian offerings under the tent. Susan James of King Arthur Flour braised pork butt in Harpoon ale, then added Béchamel, cheddar, roasted garlic and smoked bacon to her macaroni elbows. “Pork on the bottom, candied pork on top, and you can’t go wrong,” she declared.
Just before 3 p.m., a voice strained over the crowd to announce the winner that three official judges had chosen. Third place: Home Hill Inn. The “little ears” from the Hanover Inn took second. And, in a surprising upset, Quechee’s Singleton’s Market — which opened just this year — aced the competition. (It’s the second outpost of the famous Singleton’s General Store in Proctorsville.) The People’s Choice Award went to Bethel’s Harrington House Inn.
At the Singleton’s table, co-owner Gabe Hathorn high-fived some friends. His table held only a few pumpkins and mums, as the crew had already run out of its mac and cheese.
Though he wouldn’t divulge the exact recipe, Hathorn ran through its ingredients: Singleton’s smoked cheddar, which the market smokes with corncobs; VFCC AleHouse Cheddar; Munster; house-smoked ham; milk; cream; butter; and bread crumbs. Will the market be back next year to compete? “Oh, yeah,” Hathorn said.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Noodle Nirvana"