A Tale of Two Cheeses

Two very different macaroni and cheese brands reviewed

A Tale of Two Cheeses

Ever since I was a child, I have made a meal out of boxed mac and cheese. My mother will likely attest to this in the comments. For years, my brand of choice was Kraft, and then Annie’s rose in prominence. Perhaps you are like me, enjoying the occasional bowl of noodles—elbows, shells, or bunnies—slathered in a triple-dairy sauce of cheese powder, butter, and milk—because you simply do not have the capacity to make a meal with more than four ingredients.

To put it more accurately, that’s the old me. The new, vegan-style me still loves macaroni and cheese, as long as you swap the dairy with alternative, nut-based concoctions. In my mind, it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard for boxed macaroni brands to go vegan—how much cheese is actually in that little packet of powder, anyway?

Camp, a young company that seemingly popped up out of nowhere last year and quickly saturated my Instagram feed with ads, is trying to capitalize on the lazy vegan market with its own non-dairy mac. (They also make non-vegan mac, for the lazy cheese eaters among us.) Thanks to one of those Instagram offers, I got a free three-pack of Camp’s Vegan Cheezy Mac last month. Like Kraft and Annie’s, Camp’s boxed mac and cheese comes with a powdered sauce mix made out of plants. The pasta is also plant-based and gluten-free, which probably adds to Camp’s cost—a three-pack costs $19.99, or about $6.66 per box. You can save a bit if you purchase a monthly subscription (three boxes every four weeks, which just doesn’t feel right)—that’ll cost you just $15.99, or $5.33 per box. Note that none of these prices include shipping, which is an additional $8 for orders under $30.

Three boxes of Camp mac and cheese surround a bowl of the cooked macaroni product.

I’ll admit that the high price of Camp turned me into a much harsher critic than I might otherwise be. The noodles were a little chewy, though not unpleasant. The sauce definitely tasted “cheezy,” though I felt it was a bit muted. With every bite I took, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to calculate the value of each spoonful of noodles.

Annie’s mac and cheese is also around $6 per box, but at least you can get it at the grocery store (and their vegan varieties are, at least in my experience, tastier than Camp). If Camp could get its products into stores—and keep the price competitive with Annie’s—I could see myself picking up a box when I need a quick lunch in the cupboard. But until then, I can’t see myself eating Camp Vegan Cheezy Mac again.

I know what many of you are probably thinking: “Adam, I truly do not care about vegan macaroni and cheese. Give me something made with real dairy that I sink my teeth into!” Unfortunately, I cannot provide this experience, which is why I thought I would invite writer Kate Raphael to review Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese Bold & Cheesy, an appropriately disturbing dairy-rich boxed mac.

Dangerously Mac ‘n Cheesy

by Kate Raphael

A few months ago, I walked through the sliding glass doors of a CVS and walked out with the first bag of Cheetos I’d purchased in years. I stood on the sidewalk of Cambridge’s Central Square, pulled apart the metalized plastic bag, and inhaled a mouthwatering plume of orange.

I dipped my hand into the crinkly plastic, retrieved a few orange twigs, and shoved them in my mouth. It was bliss. And I was immediately reminded why Cheetos are the best snack: on first bite, they’re crunchy and dense, yet in seconds, they melt on the tongue. Cheetos’ distinctly corn-y flavor never interferes with the zest of the cheddar, instead creating something cheesier than a Frito, puffier than a Dorito—snack perfection.

Frito-Lay nailed what food scientists call the “bliss point,” the optimal ratio of ingredients to maximize deliciousness—and addictiveness. This is precisely why for years I didn’t let myself eat Cheetos; I was scared of the snack Chester Cheetah calls “dangerously cheesy.” After struggling on and off with an eating disorder for more than a decade, I worried I’d like them too much, that I wouldn’t be able to stop, that before I knew it, I would have cleared the drugstore of every Cheetos bag in stock.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, I stood outside CVS, orange-fingered, shoveling Cheetos into my face for the first time in years and wishing I hadn’t wasted so much energy depriving myself of a snack that might be the answer to the world’s problems, or at least part of the answer to my own. Cheetos are just that good.

Cheetos aren’t the only food I’ve returned to after a long hiatus since childhood. Recovery from my eating disorder has unlocked entire categories of comestibles that were off-limits while I was in my disorder, and I now find myself craving many childhood favorites: toaster waffles, candy, Ben & Jerry’s, bacon, boxed mac and cheese. It’s comforting to return to the old standbys, to remember myself whipping up a box of Annie’s white cheddar shells with my best friend in first grade, the first meal we learned how to cook for ourselves.

Three bowls of Cheetos mac and cheese in front of their respective boxes: Cheesy Jalapeno, Bold & Cheesy, and Flamin' Hot.

Although boxed mac has returned as a staple in my diet, before this review, I’d never tried (or even heard of) Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese. One Friday a few weeks ago, I strolled through the aisles of Target and picked up a box of the Bold & Cheesy variety—though I couldn’t resist grabbing a box of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese as well.

When I got home and set to work in the kitchen, the Bold & Cheesy mac came together flawlessly. It took seven quick minutes for the pasta to cook before I drained the pot and dumped the packet of alarmingly orange cheese (what I can only assume is pure Cheetle, the traffic cone-colored dust that coats Cheetos) in the pot with melted butter and milk. I whisked the sauce together, splattering a few neon orange droplets on my shirt, and returned the pasta to the mixture, having thrown together my dinner in less than ten minutes. The ease of assembly was a dream.

I’ll admit—when I first opened the box of Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese, I was a little disappointed by the pasta shape. When it comes to mac and cheese, I love a shell or an elbow (yes, I’ve been conditioned by my formative childhood years spent eating Annie’s and Kraft), and I was thrown off by the choice of rotini (the corkscrew shape was supposedly inspired by Chester Cheetah’s tail). But once the whole dish came together, I was pleasantly surprised. The rotini were coated evenly by the rich, smooth sauce, each pasta coil becoming the deep Cheetos-orange color we know and crave. Although a shell or elbow works well to scoop up excess sauce, Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese had nary a drop of sauce to spare. This is not to say the pasta was dry, rather that my bowl had the perfect ratio of noodle to liquid Cheetle, food engineering at its finest. (The common wisdom stating that there are myriad pasta varieties because each one is suited to a perfect marriage with a particular sauce and preparation seems to be true.)

After critically evaluating the noodle shape, I dug in. I’ll confess that Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese Bold & Cheesy was a little bland. Sure, the butter offered decadence, and the MSG added a pleasing umami flavor, but the bowl of mac wasn’t worthy of the spiritual experience I’d had with my long-awaited bag of Cheetos. In fact, I missed the complexity of a cheese sauce like Annie’s where the aged cheddar adds a subtle nuttiness, the sharpness giving way to toastiness. And I missed the snappiness of eating actual Cheetos, the tactile experience of licking my hands replaced by a chilly metal fork. Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese Bold & Cheesy perfectly matched the flavor profile of the snack that inspired it, but the overall effect of the pasta was underwhelming. Rather than the “cheese that goes crunch,” I found Cheetos Mac to be “cheese that goes smoosh.” I don’t want my noodles to be crunchier than al dente, but what actual Cheetos do so well is that they do so much at once: crispiness, savoriness, cheesiness, melt in your mouthiness. Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese still hit the spot, but just one spot.

Even worse, when I’d finished my bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese, I was left still wanting something. I was hungry for a simpler era of kiddie food and intuitive eating, when boxed mac was less than a dollar and Cheetos was stylized as Chee-tos. The meal made me salivate for the lack of inhibition of childhood snacking, the shamelessness of little fingers covered in Cheetos dust. I was ravenous for this experience, and hungry enough to whip up another box—this time, Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese Flamin’ Hot.

If you enjoyed Kate’s review of Cheetos Mac ‘n Cheese, subscribe to her newsletter, The Overshare, to get personal essays from her every other Friday at 7 am. You can find more of her work on her website.

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