Cheese minus the mac
Toddlers are irrational creatures. How else to explain why my 21/2-year-old daughter flat out refuses to eat macaroni and cheese. She loves macaroni, demanding that we use the short little elbows found in the blue-boxed Kraft mac and cheese, but she honestly prefers when I mix the cooked noodles with butter and, I kid you not, some soy sauce. I call this mixture “plain noodles,” and she falls for it every time. You can decide whether I’m a terrible parent.
Needless to say, my family now has a whole cache of powdered cheese packets on hand, just waiting for some practical use. But what can you do with a product that was scientifically engineered in a laboratory to be used for one specific purpose? Well, you start sprinkling the bright orange substance on random items and see what happens.
First, I should point out that the powder is more than just dried cheese, but you probably already guessed as much. Of course, it’s tempting to go in the other direction and assume the powder contains nothing but unnatural substances with four-syllable names. But the ingredient list happens to be on the box.
The first four ingredients in Kraft’s cheese sauce mix are whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate and salt. Hey, so far so good! It’s only toward the end of the list that you run into sodium triphosphate, citric acid, lactic acid and sodium phosphate. Renowned food scientist Harold McGee explains in “On Food and Cooking” that those ingredients are the bedrock of the processed cheese industry. They help “new, partly ripened, and fully ripened cheeses” melt together into a “homogeneous mass” that melts “nicely when cooked.” Not exactly the most appetizing thought, but at least they have a purpose.
What does this all mean in practical purposes? In some ways the powder is a salty umami bomb, ready to add a savory depth to anything it touches. But the powder doesn’t necessarily enjoy playing with others. First of all, there’s the bright orange hue, which casts everything in a neonlike glow. And as soon as you add a liquid and heat to the party, the powder will remember its one true purpose and form the familiar sauce.
Here are some ideas for exploiting the unique properties of Kraft’s cheese powder.
Cheesy bloody mary: The bloody mary can handle all manner of oddball ingredients, but it’s almost embarrassing to admit how well cheese powder works here. The trick is to line the edge of the glass with the powder, as you would with salt for a margarita. That way, each sip gets a rush of salty cheese powder.
Pour the cheese powder onto a plate and spread into an even layer. Use a quartered lemon to wet the rim of a glass. Turn the glass upside down and press into the cheese powder to coat the entire rim. Fill the glass with ice. Add 4 ounces of tomato juice, 2 ounces of vodka, 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 ounce lemon juice. Stir until cold. Sprinkle a pinch of cheese powder on top.
Cheesy eggs: The orange powder adds a creamy consistency, without completely overwhelming each bite in this very simple scramble.
Whisk together 2 eggs and 2 tablespoons of cheese powder in a bowl. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat. Pour in the eggs and cook, stirring every few seconds, until eggs have set.
Faux-ritos: At first, this sounded simple, but getting the powder to adhere to the chips required some testing. Plus, to get the right flavor profile of Doritos, you’ll need to add some paprika and cayenne for color and a smidge of heat.
The easiest way is to spread some tortilla chips (about 8 cups) on a baking sheet and either spray them with baking spray or brush both sides lightly with canola oil. Add all of the cheese packet, 1 tablespoon of paprika and 1/2 teaspoon cayenne to a large zip-top bag and shake until thoroughly mixed. Add the chips, and toss until each chip is evenly coated. Spread the chips back on the sheet pan, and sprinkle more of the powder from the bag on top of each. Bake in a 300-degree oven until warm, about 10 minutes.
Cheesy drop biscuits: Thanks to that recent Beyonce shoutout, it’s OK again to profess your secret love for the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster. But if you have a cheese packet at home, making them yourself turns out to be rather easy. The results will have a slightly unnatural orange glow, but that’s a small price for something so incredibly easy to make.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut 1 stick of butter into small cubes. Toss butter in a large bowl with 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 / 2 teaspoon salt and 1 cheese packet. (Add more if you want more cheesy flavor.) Use your fingers to mix butter into the flour mixture, until it forms a coarse meal. Pour in 1 cup milk, and stir gently until just combined. Arrange 1 / 4-cup scoops of the dough on the baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake until lightly browned on top, around 15 minutes.
Cheesy popcorn: This is a no-brainer. Unlike the cheese popcorn purchased from a store, you can devour this while it’s still warm.
Toss freshly popped popcorn in a bowl with melted butter. Sprinkle a cheese packet over the popcorn. Toss until all the kernels are evenly coated. If you’re using microwaved popcorn with the butter already added (and why not), just add the powdered cheese to the bowl and toss.