The Great Mac & Cheese Bake-Off 2013

UPDATE Tues., Dec. 3, 2013: The Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula announced the winners of the Great Mac and Cheese Bake-Off 2013 on their Facebook page.

Peoples Choice Winner: Siren Hall, location Chateau Grand Traverse

Cheesiest Winner: The Cooks' House, location Hawthorne Vineyards

Best Pairing: Black Star Farms, location The Inn at Black Starr Farms

Congrats to these chefs for creating some remarkable dishes. It was a fantastic event, and it is certainly hard to disagree with the outcome. Some fine flavors and wines were had this past Saturday, to be sure.

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On Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, the wineries of Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City, MI hosted the annual Great Macaroni and Cheese Bake-Off.

Mac and cheese is a classic comfort food staple. It is the dish of childhood memories, of friends and family, a go-to meal that is easy to prepare and delicious, almost without fail. But it can also present a complex melding of favors, a template for bolder interpretations depending on the ingenuity of the chef. And let me tell you, the chef's of Traverse City - they did some good work! The wineries also put their best foot forward, pairing each mac and cheese dish with several tastings of their staple wines.

Our starting point was Black Star Farms Old Mission Tasting Room. The mac and cheese was presented courtesy of Black Star Farms dining service. A few summers ago, my wife and I had a marvelous dinner at their inn, which included duck prosciutto and a beef cheeks entrée. It was absolutely phenomenal and we were both excited to see what their chef would add to this bake-off. Their mac and cheese was topped with a Caprese sauce, crispy prosciutto, and a drizzle of balsamic reduction. The tangy reduction contrasted nicely with the tomato-basil sauce, and the dried meat added a nice bit of crunch. It was paired well with Black Star Farms Arcturos dry Riesling and had us off to a terrific start.

We worked our way up to Peninsula Cellars, which hosted Jolly Pumpkin. The restaurant served a very pleasant interpretation that used raclette cheddar, mixed with finely chopped kale and braised short ribs. The kale was a very strong presence, but, unfortunately, in the sample I received the beef was less noticeable. Still, it was a serviceable enough dish and tasted good, with the kale adding a nice "green" zing.

The incredible smell of the slow-cooked pork permeated the air and greeted our arrival at Brys Estate. The Towne Plaza delivered the knock-out dish of this competition for both my wife and I. Their chef did a truly outstanding job, elevating their mac and cheese dish by using smoked fontina and pulled pork. The pork was perfectly prepared and juicy, and the smoky flavors brought an incredible layer of flavor. This mouth-watering dish was savory and cheesy, and the first bite instantly warmed our souls. If this isn't a staple on their menu now, it needs to be. This was the perfect mac and cheese entree, and one I would return to time and time again if given the chance. I have little doubt Maureen and I will be trying to imitate this dish in our own kitchen soon!

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We hit the half-way mark of our tasting tour with 2 Lads Winery. Their building and tasting room is a piece of elegant, modern architecture, resting atop a hill that offers a terrific view of Grand Traverse Bay. Unfortunately, their parking lot and the small segment for overflow parking were not equipped to handle the sold-out event. We braved the outdoor line, with the temp in the low 30s and some gusty winds, and made our way into the loading bay, which was equipped with heating lamps to help us warm up.  2 Lads served 2 dishes from 7 Monks. One was a prosciutto mac and cheese, and the other was pumpkin with sweet peppers. The first dish was good, but it was in their second offering where 7 Monks' creativity shined. It was delightfully sweet, which was a bit unexpected, and chopped walnuts provided a welcome crunch. I had opted for the prosciutto dish, while Maureen had the pumpkin, and I sampled one bite from hers. While I liked mine well enough, the pumpkin mac and cheese was a definite winner in this round.

Chateau Chantal is always a stop whenever we are in Traverse City. It is one of our favorite locales up north, and we are even members of their wine club. Our house is rarely without a Chateau Chantal wine, we stock up pretty regularly when in town, and their Gewurztraminer and Late Harvest Riesling are two all-time favorites. Their Naughty White wine paired very well with Opa Uptown's Gorgonzola and feta dish. These cheeses are among our least favorite, however. The sample was heavy and more creamy than cheesy, but the crispy wonton they topped it with were a nice contrast against the noodles. While the wine was great and worked well with the dish, neither of us much cared for the heady, earthy flavors of the cheeses here.

At Bowers Harbor Vineyards, we hit a bit of a snag. Literally, I'm afraid. Traverse City had been getting its share of snow in the preceding days, and the operators of Bowers didn't do a very good job in plowing the long stretch of drive leading up to the winery. They also didn't salt the road. On top of this, it's a rather narrow stretch of road, and given their lack of parking spaces, cars were lined up along the shoulders of the road. I was barely a few feet up the drive when I had to pull over to let traffic pass, and then found myself on the wrong side of a snow rut and unable to get out. Every time I went in reverse, we only got deeper. The more we tried to go forward, the more the rut resisted and pushed us deeper off the road, until the passenger side of our car was very nearly jammed up against the vineyard posts. Four good-natured gentlemen tried to pus us out, but were unable to overcome the elements. While waiting for a tow truck, another eight Good Samaritans insisted on trying, and succeeded in pushing us out. In the process, though, the doors were rather badly scratched up by nails and wiring around the wooden post and the passenger side mirror was shattered. Our Good Samaritans rushed off once the job was done, and we weren't able to thank them properly. So, if by any chance, they stumble across this page - THANK YOU! You guys were incredibly kind to help, and I want you to know it was greatly appreciated.

After that bit of drama, we were in need of wine and comfort food. Grand Traverse Resort's chef prepared a butternut squash mac and cheese, using ricotta and six-year old Vermont cheddar. The squash was a good flavor component, but the dish overall was too dry and not quite cheesy enough to satisfy. That said, it was a nice use of seasonal ingredients and would be a comforting fall/winter meal if it were a bit wetter and gooey.

Lulu's (Although the ballots listed Siren Hall at this location, it appeared to be Lulu's, however both are operated by Chef Michael), at Chateau Grand Traverse, made up for the multiple disappointments at Bowers Harbor. Their dish, composed of braised beef, leeks, and pecorino cheese, was a definite contender for best mac and cheese. Like Towne Plaza's, I was instantly hooked and immediately satisfied. It was phenomenal, and a perfect way to warm up on a cold winter day. The meat was tender and delicious. This small meal presented a perfect blend of savory and gooey cheesiness, and paired outstandingly well with the winery's sweet Late Harvest Riesling. The contrast between sweet and savory is what sold me, and the rich flavor components put this in the top two. The beef in this dish also helped to pair well with the winery's peppery Gamay Noir. It was very, very difficult to choose between Lulu's and Towne Plaza's when voting for "People's Choice," but I felt Towne Plaza very narrowly edged them out. However, when voting on the best wine pairing, Lulu's and CGT was a no-brainer for me. If this dish is offered regularly at Lulu's, we'll be buying for sure.

Our trip around the peninsula ended at Hawthorne Vineyards, which was paired with The Cook's House. This local sustainable farm-to-table restaurant has a terrific selection, and this past summer we enjoyed a seven-course tasting menu that left us incredibly satisfied. Given the high pedigree in crafting artisan foods, and the rich culinary background of Eric Patterson, I was surprised to be so disappointed with our final mac and cheese dish. Three cheeses, toasted fennel seeds, and caramelized onions sounded much better than it tasted. While it certainly had the cheesiness, it lacked the wow factor and heartiness of the previous dishes, particularly against some stern competition like Towne Plaza and Lulu's, who really brought their A-game to the peninsula. Patterson returned us to a somewhat more traditional and basic mac and cheese dish, however the fennel was overpoweringly herbaceous and cloying, and neither Maureen nor I finished our samples. While our brief meeting with Patterson was proof enough that he certainly put his heart and much thought into the dish, it, sadly, just wasn't for us.

The mac and cheese bake-off is an event we've been wanting to attend for several years. After having missed our chances, it was great to finally take part! This annual competition is held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and is a welcome change of pace from the turkey leftovers. It was definitely worth the forty-dollar per person charge. However, if we do this again, I think we'll spring for the charter services and avoid the hassles of parking in over crowded lots or the hazards of winter. The bake-off was an excellent showcase for the versatility of mac and cheese, and we were able to sample a broad selection of dishes. Our route also helped, somewhat, to alternate between vegetarian dishes with meat dishes. We were never overburdened with too much of one thing, and each chef brought their own personal touches to the dish, which ensured unique creations across the eight wineries. It also helped introduce us to a few new restaurants, and remind us of why we loved those we are already familiar with. Even after eating all this mac and cheese, we were awfully tempted to hit up Towne Plaza for dinner on the off-chance that we could score more of their pulled pork dish!

Michael Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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