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Low-end Mac & Cheese

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- 2009.06.26 - Tip Jar

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Analogies

Apple is the BMW of the computing world. Well engineered, good looking, not cheap, and built to last.

Windows is the McDonald's of personal computing. Volume does not equal quality.

Macs are Catholic; PCs are Protestant - at least that's the opinion of Italian author Umberto Eco.

These are just a few of the analogies people use to try to clarify the difference between Apple, Macs, and the Mac OS and Microsoft, PCs, and Windows.

It's a challenge to come up with good analogies, and I've spent some time dreaming up a new one not based in automobiles, restaurants, or religion.

Macaroni & Cheese

For years I toyed with the idea of doing Low End Mac & Cheese on April Fool's Day, but the concept never got off the ground. (Ditto for Low End McIntosh, celebrating the apple. And let's not even go to McIntosh Labs, the high-end audio company.)

Over the past week or so, I've come to the conclusion that macaroni and cheese is a good analogy.

Go to your local grocer, and you'll see hundreds of boxes of mac & cheese, all about the same size, all going for a different market. And they all have two basic ingredients: pasta, usually elbows, and cheese, usually powdered.

For the cheap and the financially challenged, there are generic and store brand boxes of mac & cheese. For those with more money and young children, there is macaroni shaped like some favorite character or another. For those who don't want to be bothered mixing powdered cheese with milk and butter or margarine, there's Kraft Easy Mac, available in microwavable snack packs or a microwavable cup.

As if that wasn't enough options, you can go to the freezer section and buy mac & cheese that's been fully prepared, packaged, and frozen to keep for months in your freezer.

There's a spectrum of price and quality. The stuff that goes on sale a few times a year for 25¢ a box isn't as good as the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and you can probably buy better than that - I haven't really researched the market. The cheap stuff is comfort food, and it will sustain you. The better stuff makes for a more tasty meal. And they're all made with those same ingredients: macaroni and cheese.

You can upgrade it a bit by adding some pepper, cutting up some hot dogs, browning some some ground beef, sprinkle on some Parmesan, or add whatever to improve the end result, but it's still mass produced, off-the-shelf macaroni and cheese.

A Different Experience

Then there's homemade macaroni & cheese. My sister has a wonderful recipe, and she usually bakes hers. My wife has some excellent recipes that are very creamy. You'd never mistake these for the stuff that comes from the store in a box. Eating this kind of macaroni and cheese is an experience; it's not just about sustaining yourself.

Making this kind of mac & cheese is more time consuming than the prepackaged stuff. And there's usually more involved than noodles and reconstituted cheese. You don't usually make just enough for 2 or 3 servings. You make a lot, either to feed the whole family or so you'll have leftovers. It's that good.

Low-end Macaroni and Cheese

By now I hope you've caught the analogy. Windows PCs are like store bought mac & cheese. They do the job, they don't cost much, and the vast majority of people find them satisfactory. Some brands are cheaper, some are easier to prepare, and some come ready to heat and serve, but they're all pasta with cheese sauce.

Macs are like homemade macaroni and cheese. The focus isn't on cheap and/or fast. The focus is on quality. Anyone can mix up a box of mac & cheese, but not everyone has the patience or is willing to invest the effort to prepare a better meal - or use a better computer.

Homemade macaroni and cheese doesn't have just a few ingredients and it does cost a lot more than the store brand stuff, but anyone who has ever experienced the homemade variety understands that what you buy from the grocer is a pale imitation of the real thing - like Windows on whatever brand of hardware is a pale imitation of the whole Mac experience where there's a synergy between the hardware and operating system that only happens when one company "makes the whole widget".

There are no boxes of mac & cheese in the house, nor do we use Windows PCs, Windows-based smart phones, or Windows-based PDAs. My PDA is a Palm (they make the whole widget too!), our phones aren't smart, and we use Macs.

As anyone who has used Macs and then gone back to Windows (or Linux, for that matter) eventually discovers, while they can be productive, it just isn't the same experience.

And for those looking for a better macaroni and cheese experience, here are a couple of my wife's recipes. They could ruin you for store bought mac & cheese.

Macaroni & Cheese Recipes

4 Cheese Macaroni & Cheese

4 cups cooked multigrain elbow pasta
2 Tbls. buttery spread
2 Tbls. flour
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese (optional: low fat)
1/2 cup grated Fontina cheese
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
For an antioxidant boost add 1-1/2 cups cauliflower or broccoli florets, steamed (cauliflower works best with this dish).

Preheat oven to 375º. Cook the multigrain pasta in boiling water for 7-8 minutes. Drain well and set aside. In a deep skillet, melt the buttery spread over medium heat. Add the flour to make a roux and stir well. Pour the milk and cook until the mixture is thick and smooth. Season with cayenne pepper.

Stir in 2 cups of shredded cheddar, Fontina and Gruyere cheeses and continue to cook until until fully melted. Add the cooked pasta and stir well. Transfer the mixture to a large casserole dish. Carefully take the presteamed cauliflower florets and sink them into and throughout the casserole. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese. Bake until bubbly, about 30 minutes at 375º.

Best Mac 'n' Cheese Ever

1 head of garlic, roasted
1 tsp. olive oil
1 lb. Cavatappi pasta
1/2 lb. sliced Applewood smoked bacon
1-1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
8 Tbls. butter
1/2 cup minced shallots
1/2 cup flour
1 quart whole milk
6 oz. Gruyere cheese, grated
8 oz. extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°.

To roast garlic: Slice 1ò2 inch off the top of the entire head of garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap garlic head tightly in a square of heavy foil and roast until tender - about 45 minutes. Remove garlic pulp by squeezing garlic head. Smash cloves with a fork to form a paste.

Cook pasta according to package directions. Cook bacon completely. Drain on paper towels. Reserve 1 tablespoon of bacon fat. Crumble bacon when cool.

To make topping: Combine bread crumbs, crumbled bacon, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375°. Sauté shallots over low heat in reserved bacon fat for one minute. Add remaining 6 tablespoons of butter and continue to sauté shallots in butter and bacon fat until translucent.

Add flour and continue to cook for 1-2 minutes. Increase heat to medium. Stirring constantly with a whisk, add milk and roasted garlic paste.

Cook until sauce is thickened (coats the back of a spoon). Remove sauce from heat then add salt, pepper, nutmeg, Gruyere and Cheddar cheeses. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.

Stir in cooked pasta. Pour into baking dish. Sprinkle topping to cover entire top. Cover with foil and bake 15 minutes. Remove foil and continue baking until sauce is bubbly and topping is browned.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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