If forced to declare one quintessential, southern Wisconsin dish, it would be mac and cheese.
Fish fries and bratwurst and beer all have their place. But a rich, creamy dish of noodles enveloped in cheddar sauce and topped with crunchy bread crumbs? That’s classic Wisconsin. Even the national chain Noodles and Co. has named their version of the dish for us.
“Among comfort foods, mac and cheese has more degrees of freedom and fewer preconceived notions and rules,” wrote JM Rasmus and Nichole Fromm of the local blog Eating in Madison A to Z.
Rasmus has had the dish in 19 different Madison restaurants since the pair started their blog seven years ago. It’s still his favorite food, “the most straightforward marriage of Wisconsin’s two kinds of farming: grain and dairy.”
There are two basic ways to make macaroni and cheese. One is the creamy, stove-top style (like the unnaturally orange stuff that comes in a blue Kraft box). The second is more southern, a baked casserole topped with bread crumbs.
The Old Fashioned’s mac has been on the menu since it opened, and it’s a combination of the two styles. Served with a section of bologna (for an extra $3) from Fendt Brothers Meat Market in Watertown, it’s rich and creamy with 7-year-old Vern’s cheddar and SarVecchio cheese, a Wisconsin-made Parmesan. It’s prepared mostly stove-top, then baked with bread crumbs for crunch.
“All the cheese, cream and butter is from Wisconsin,” said Jennifer DiBolt, general manager of The Old Fashioned. “It’s good comfort food, nice and homey.”
At Graze, mac and cheese gets upgraded with Hook’s 10-year cheddar, fresh RP’s pasta and a sprinkling of panko bread crumbs and chives for crunch and color.
“It’s such an iconic dish and it features some fantastic Wisconsin cheese,” said Talish Barrow, manager of Graze. “Chef Tory’s a big fan of the creamy style of mac and cheese … some people have even said it’s like Kraft, but a refined version. That’s the style people are used to.”
The Coopers Tavern dresses up its macaroni and cheese (which is actually campanelle, a flower-shaped pasta) with a big hunk of pork belly, glazed in Ale Asylum’s Big Slick Stout. Even though it’s made with Dubliner Irish cheddar, there’s nothing particularly “Irish” about this mac.
“I would say it’s a solid Madison dish,” said executive chef Tim Larsen. “It’s a — I don’t want to say a gluttonous dish, but we wanted to go over the top with the flavors.”
For those ready to take their cheese consumption to the next level, there is, of course, Ian’s Pizza. One friend likes to drizzle Ian’s famous macaroni and cheese slice with barbecue sauce from the condiment stand.
“The noodles are soft, but not mushy, and their pizza has an interesting white sauce base that uses crème fraiche as well as melted cheddar,” she wrote in an email. “It’s really, really good.”
At Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, the big sampler basket includes fried wedges of mac and cheese. (Bluephie’s did a version of these at the Taste of Madison last summer, and they’re on the menu as an appetizer that includes bacon.)
“Pretty much everybody loves them,” said Dotty’s manager Nick Voigt of the fried mac wedges. “They’re horrible for you. But you know, everybody likes to indulge once awhile. And they’re great hangover food.”
For home cooks, we recommend a version of goat cheese and peppercorn mac from Zingerman’s Roadhouse or, for a great standard, Mark Bittman’s classic baked macaroni and cheese with Emmental and Parmesan.
Coming up in early March, celebrate mac and cheese for a week at The Old Fashioned. The menu isn’t set yet, but past years’ favorites include a Fraboni’s Italian sausage/pepper combo and an elegant truffle version.
“Mac and cheese is one of those meals you can eat all year ’round,” said DiBolt at The Old Fashioned. “It reminds me of home.”