Updated on 07.10.09

How Low Can You Go? Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping

Trent Hamm

In April and May, National Public Radio featured a series on inexpensive gourmet dishes entitled “How Low Can You Go?” Although many of the dishes looked quite tasty, most of the dishes weren’t actually all that inexpensive, often narrowly getting below $10 to feed a family of four, and many involved arduous cooking processes. I decided to try out some of these recipes throughout the summer to see how I could take the recipes and reduce them down to a simple and very inexpensive form.

Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping

One “How Low Can You Go” recipe that sounded incredibly tasty (but also pretty unhealthy) was Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping, submitted to the contest by Pat and Gina Neely, authors of the cookbook Down Home with the Neelys: A Southern Family Cookbook. Here’s the recipe, as submitted to NPR:

Cheesy Corkscrews

6 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing
Kosher salt
1 pound cavatappi (or other tubular pasta)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, warmed
1 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Dash hot sauce
Dash Worcestershire sauce
4 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese
1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Crunchy Bacon Topping

1 1/2 cups crushed potato chips
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
5 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish.

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until it’s al dente. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Whisk in the warmed milk and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly (the mixture will thicken as the heat increases).

Stir the dry mustard, salt, black pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce into the thickened milk. Stir in 3 cups of the cheddar, and the Pecorino Romano, until the cheeses melt.

Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce, and toss to combine. Pour the cheese-apalooza mixture into the prepared casserole dish.

Make the topping: In a medium bowl, combine the potato chips, Pecorino Romano, crumbled bacon, parsley and the remaining cheddar. Sprinkle the crumb mixture on top of the macaroni and cheese, and bake for 35 minutes. For a crunchier topping, finish under the broiler for 3 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving.

I have a three year old boy and a one year old girl at home and macaroni and cheese is pretty much a guaranteed hit. However, I usually find the stuff out of the box to be pretty blah – I’ll jazz up my own with all kinds of things, but it’s still not the best. Thus, I really like homemade mac-and-cheese recipes – they let me create something quite enjoyable for me and the kids still go wild. This recipe is right in that wheelhouse.

However, it’s awfully unhealthy. Six tablespoons of butter? Five slices of bacon? Potato chips? Six cups of cheese? Four cups of whole milk? Wow. That’s not the most healthy recipe one could make, though the thought of it from a purely flavorful standpoint made my mouth drool. Unsurprisingly, the NPR commenters felt similarly, offering up such thoughts as:

To select this dish as a “meal” is an insult to your listeners.

NPR says “a budget-conscious meal for a family of four that’s healthy”. I guess that we should expect a not-so-healthy option from the owners of a BBQ establishment.

… and so on.

My perspective is a bit different. I fall in line with Julia Child, who advocated a widely varied and balanced diet that included some fat, and she lived a very long life doing just that. For us, a recipe like this is fine if it’s used as a side dish and is complemented with some healthy options – we chose to eat it in conjunction with a large spinach salad, as you can see in the picture above.

However, we did make some substitutes right out of the chute. Instead of using pork bacon, we chose substantially healthier turkey bacon. We used skim milk instead of whole milk. We used low-fat cheeses as well and we used a healthy penne rigate for the pasta because we couldn’t find a healthy cavatappi. Even with those choices, though, this wasn’t the healthiest entree – it should definitely be a side dish.

Here’s what we wound up using:


I started off by melting the butter in a pan, then added the flour and stirred rapidly. As expected, it became a lumpy paste quite quickly, looking like this:

Butter + flour

This is arguably the most unhealthy substance on earth, but it gets quite a bit better from there.

Next, I poured the milk on top, stirred it steadily over the heat, and waited until it was bubbling. The milk thickened up a bit from the flour and butter but it still largely looked the same, with perhaps just a very slight yellow hint (contributed by the butter):


I then added the spices and the cheese and stirred it rapidly as the cheese melted. It began to look like a very tasty cheese sauce at this point – I couldn’t help myself and tasted it a time or two … or six:


At the same time as I was preparing the sauce, the pasta was boiling over on the other burner. Once the sauce was consistent (and delicious!), I drained the pasta, then added the creamy sauce to the penne, stirring them together. This itself looked good enough to serve as a side dish – and tasty enough, too.

Cheese sauce and penne

I wasn’t done yet, though. I poured the pasta and cheese into a three quart casserole (note: a three quart isn’t quite big enough to contain all of the ingredients – I had just a bit of extra pasta that wouldn’t reasonably fit). Then I tossed the remaining ingredients together – the chips, the crushed turkey bacon, and the cheese – and put this mixture on top.

Here it is before it went in the oven.

Just before putting it in the oven

I baked it at 375 F for thirty five minutes, then moved it under the broiler for three minutes. But just after I moved it under the broiler, disaster struck. The kids needed help, so I ran and helped them. When I got back, sure enough…


It was fine, though. The top was a bit crunchier than expected, but still tasty, especially if you broke it up and stirred it into the pasta.

As I mentioned above, we served this with a large spinach salad. We also had a white wine with it – Twin Fin Pinot Grigio. Here was my final plate:

Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping

We had a ton of leftovers. We wound up eating this as a side three more times, so this will make plenty unless you eat an exorbitant amount. I would halve the recipe.

Did we like it? We loved it, all of us. The kids ate it like there was no tomorrow and my wife and I both loved the variety of flavors it offered.

Our cost (minus fractional things we had on hand) was $11.04, more than half of which was cheese. Given that we were able to get roughly 16 servings out of our pot, the cost per serving was about $0.63.

Changes I Would Make to Save Cost and Time (and Health)
First, I’d substitute ingredients all over the place. Use margarine instead of butter. Use skim milk instead of whole. Use low-fat cheese. Use turkey bacon. Use whole-grain pasta. Surprisingly, if you want to substitute for the chips, slice some kale and bake it – it tastes an awful lot like a potato chip. These things won’t drastically change the taste but will drastically reduce the fat content.

Second, I’d halve the ingredients and serve it as a side dish. The whole dish would have served a small army, even as a main course. I wound up with an overflowing three quart baking dish – totally overkill for a family of four.

Third, I wouldn’t sweat the cavatappi. Cavatappi can be hard to find and expensive when you find it. Just use whole wheat penne as your pasta, or even elbow macaroni.

Fourth, I’d grate your own cheese. Turn on the water to boil the pasta first, then sit down to grate the cheese. It won’t add any time to the overall recipe, but it will save you some cash.

If you want to get ready for it the night before, grate the cheese and cook the penne. The rest can be done pretty quickly.

With those things in mind, here’s the recipe I would prepare:

Trent’s Cheesy Mac with Crunchy Bacon Topping

Cheesy Corkscrews

3 tablespoons butter, plus more for greasing
1/2 pound penne
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups skim milk, warmed
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch nutmeg
Dash hot sauce
Dash Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese
3/4 cup grated Romano cheese

Crunchy Bacon Topping

3/4 cup crushed potato chips
1/2 cup grated white cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
2 slices cooked turkey bacon, crumbled
1 tablespoon parsley

Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish.

Bring a large pot of water with a pinch of salt in it to a boil and cook the pasta until it’s just slightly firm. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Whisk in the warmed milk and bring to a simmer, whisking constantly (the mixture will thicken as the heat increases).

Stir the dry mustard, salt, black pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce into the thickened milk. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar and 3/4 cup Pecorino Romano, until the cheeses melt.

Add the cooked pasta to the cheese sauce, and toss to combine. Pour the cheese-pasta mixture into the prepared casserole dish.

Make the topping: In a medium bowl, combine the potato chips, cheddar, Pecorino Romano, crumbled bacon, and parsley. Sprinkle the crumb mixture on top of the macaroni and cheese, and bake for 35 minutes. For a crunchier topping, finish under the broiler for 2 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. BonzoGal says:

    Yum! I agree, substitutions are a key part of saving money in cooking. You could use leftover bread crumbs in place of the potato chips, for one thing.

    I have a casserole recipe that calls for canned cream of celery soup- I just make a white sauce with milk, butter and flour, and add chopped celery. Mixed with the cheese in my recipe, it tastes great and adds far less sodium to our diets than the canned soup would.

  2. Peggy says:

    Another substitution: baked potato chips in place of fried.

    But I have to strongly disagree with choosing margarine over butter if the margarine is filled with partially hydrogenated oils/fats, it’s arguably worse for you than the butter is.

  3. Nick says:

    If a recipe doesn’t call for too much butter then I use it. So long as there isn’t too much and you use a high quality butter, the flavor is amazing and the fat content isn’t too bad. A dish like this, like you said, should be a side dish. I’m sure its also pretty filling so there is a bit of balance going on there. Nice article. Like it when you go through a process and post pictures. Now I’m hungry.

  4. Julie says:

    I don’t think your roux (butter & flour mixture) would thicken the sauce properly if you switched to margarine. Besides, if you got 16 servings out of that pot, using six tablespoons of butter, that’s just over a teaspoon of butter per serving. Less than you probably would put on a slice of toast.

    I totally agree with you on grating your own cheese, though. Not only is it cheaper, but the pre-grated bagged cheese has some sort of floury coating on it to keep it from clumping in the bag, and that doesn’t work well in sauces, in my experience.

  5. Michael says:

    Or no butter or margarine at all. Mac and Cheese doesn’t really seem to need it.

    The recipe I use:

  6. Katie says:

    I’m with Peggy – I’d like to question why your opinion is that margarine is healthier than butter? Now granted, neither is great, but I haven’t eaten margarine in years. I personally find that with real butter you can actually use less and get much richer flavor. All those partially hydrogenated fats scare me!
    Overall – thanks for the review and sharing your tweaks!

  7. Jes says:

    Mac ‘n cheese is the ultimate comfort food. I would also consider the following ways to make it a tad healthier:

    1. Try Morningstar Farms veggie bacon. It crisps up very well and definitely has that salty crunchy goodness of bacon

    2. Use baked potato chips instead of regular

    3. Add steamed broccoli florets before baking.

    Mmm, I could really go for a bowl now!

  8. Kristin says:

    as far as health goes:

    smart balance type margerine > butter > regular margerine.

    Butter tastes the best though :)

  9. Kevin M says:

    Sounds great, anything with bacon in it is a winner.

  10. LC says:

    I use olive oil often when butter is called for. But wow — I bet a small serving of this is easily over 500 calories — great if you are Ninook of the North, and burn 5000 calories a day, but not so good fr the rest of us.

  11. Bill K. says:


    Don’t assume Turkey Bacon is actually better for you than pork. Lots of brands of Turkey bacon are worse in sodium content (especially if you get low sodium pork bacon).

  12. Kathryn says:

    Um, once again you are falling for the “low fat” fallacy. Your body needs fats that are natural. Even so-called “healthy fats” of vegetable oils are not the best choice for building a healthy body.

    The problem with eating healthy fats is that they add a lot of calories & so portion control is important.

    This country continues to gain weight on the “low fat” diet. It is a problem for weight and health.

  13. Bill in Houston says:

    I saw where this recipe originated. I’m afraid the Neely’s wouldn’t know “healthy” if it came up and introduced itself.

    I have the feeling that the hubby will be dead of a heart attack within five years.

    This should NOT be considered for a meal. A small part of it for a side dish (one third the portion) with a healthy entree and salad would be fine.

    Your body does need fat, just not so much of it. Having a heart attack at 38 made me realize that (I’m 48 now). Olive oil, nuts… good stuff. Butter? Whole milk? Not so much.

  14. jc says:

    it’s a shame that contemporary American dietary orthodoxy forces so many to ‘enjoy’ substandard substitutes for straight-up southern cooking.

  15. friend says:

    Not my thing, not by a long shot, but your lentils were great. Different tastes make the world go ’round, I guess. I won’t be trying this one.

  16. bethh says:

    This looks great! I expected to see comments on the margarine, and I’m happy to see they’re civil :)

    One problem (for me!) with this recipe is 3/4 cups crushed potato chips = a whole lot of leftover potato chips in the bag! I would skip that ingredient completely. I might do the bacon/cheese topping but I can’t imagine it adds enough to be worth the extra steps. I’d probably just make the cheesy pasta and call it good – cheaper, faster, and marginally less bad for me.

  17. SCG says:

    FYI, margarine is not better for you than butter. :) But good job on the whole grain pasta and lower-fat dairy.

  18. dlm says:

    Looks yummy. Why not freeze extras?
    Kale crunches up when baked? Will buy some soon.

  19. Jessica says:

    This was an interesting post!!

  20. Johanna says:

    @bethh: Why not buy a single-serving bag of potato chips?

  21. ChrisD says:

    Adding the potato chips seems like a very strange choice to me. You already have carbohydrate as the pasta. Why add more?? If the chips are adding flavour then just add the flavour yourself with pepper or spices. If they are for texture then I would think this is absolutely not worth the calorie cost.
    Bechamel sauce is pretty rich, never mind the added cheese, and it looked to me like you could add less for that quantity of pasta.
    I think the main thing to add would be a very large quantity of vegetable: sliced peppers, zucchini, carrots, anything to replace some of the pasta/carbohydrate, while adding vitamins. While you do have plenty of ‘healthy’ in the salad it wouldn’t hurt to add more.

  22. KC says:

    The Neely’s don’t make anything bad. In fact their BBQ restaurant, Interstate BBQ on State Line Rd (in MS) just south of Memphis is one of the best in the city. They have other Neely’s BBQ restaurants in town, too. The one in midtown is great!

    Anyway I agree this should be more of a side dish. I wouldn’t substitute margarine for butter – its all chemicals – butter is better for you, really. Plus margarine won’t yield the same results when cooked. I might go to 1% milk, wouldn’t go all the way to skim. Turkey bacon might make a healthier substitute.

    And this stuff, despite the fat, is probably healthier than all the preservatives in the box mac n cheese.

  23. Eileen says:

    “At the same time as I was preparing the sauce, the pasta was boiling over on the other burner.”

    When my children were little, I learned a trick from someone who had lived in a developing country. To conserve limited resources, she brought water to a boil, added the pasta, put the lid on, turned on the timer, and turned off the heat. I’ve been cooking pasta this way for the past 15 years and have never again had it boil over or overcook. With littles around, there are always interruptions. This is a very forgiving method of cooking and also saves time & effort in cleaning the stovetop, not to mention wear & tear on the nerves with that horrible “boiling over” sound.

  24. Robin Crickman says:

    Trent, could you share your recipe for the
    spinach salad. That’s what we had for dinner
    tonight, but I wouldn’t call our exactly healthy.
    The only way my husband is going to eat spinach
    salad is with a bacon vineagrette dressing, not
    the healthiest choice. The spinach, mushrooms,
    and onion are fine, but the bacon not so much
    So, how do you mix and dress your spinach salad
    if you are willing to share that?

  25. Kaitie says:

    I would substitute whole grain bread crumbs for the potato chips. You could run a few pieces of bread through the food processor for a quick sec to break them up.

    To make it a bit healthier and add some depth of flavor, I’d add a head of cauliflower to the pasta for the last three minutes of boiling. I’ve tried this before and been very happy with the taste.

    I agree with earlier comments about never using margarine. Trans fats are just to awful to voluntarily ingest. I bet you could get away with using 2/3 the butter called for and adding a bit of olive oil.

  26. WilliamB says:

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the butter/margarine question came up in the very first comment. Why make that sub? Margarine is worse for your health than butter (it’s the transfats). If price is an issue, I recommend oil. Actually, I recommend garlic oil.

    Why does the recipe call for so much fat? The standard proportions are 1T fat to 1-2T flour. I can’t remember the last time I saw a recipe calling for more fat than flour.

    I’m surprised your sauce set up at all, given that you used skim milk and low-fat cheese. You must be good at bechamel. Maybe that’s why it was a little thin. Also, you may not need all that dairy fat (nor do I, for that matter) but small children need fat. OTOH, all four of you have to eat it, so maybe it’s not such a bad compromise after all.

    I’m also doubtful about the potato chip topping. Why not use breadcrumbs from leftover bread (sometimes you can get them for free from bakeries that have an automatic bread slicing machine)? Cheaper, healthier.

    (Yet) another suggestion: when you cook bacon, save the bacon grease. Then you have it at hand for recipes like this one. Instead of the potato chips and crumbled bacon, saute breadcrumbs in bacon grease and use that. Cheaper, more bacony-flavored, and no less healthy.

    You can also add some veggies. Diced carrots add nice color as well as vegetable goodness. Minced canned waterchestnuts ($1/can or less) add crunch. So does canned corn. Pureed greens make it green, which appeals to some kids.

    That’s my 2 cents. Actually, way more than that. I bet I’m up to a dime at least.

    Thanks for trying these out for us. I like your cooking outlook: substitute, change, alter!

  27. Manshu says:

    Wow this is pretty awesome!

  28. CB says:

    Do you have a garden with tomatoes? I was looking for some color in the spinach salad! Adding grated carrot and red peppers, cucumbers, mushrooms, etc. would make the plate more interesting to me!

  29. NYC reader says:

    I’ll also jump on the “Margarine is not a healthy alternative” bandwagon, because it contains hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenation turns liquid fats into solids. The process of hydrogenation takes unsaturated fats and makes them saturated.

    Because the process adds the hydrogen atoms in places along the lipid chain which are not normally populated with hydrogen, you end up with saturated trans fats, which have been proven to be bad for one’s health.

    Naturally-occurring fats are in the cis- form, meaning all the hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the lipid chain. The trans- form have the hydrogen atoms on both sides of the chain. End of chemistry lesson.

    Also, it’s very easy to make this dish vegetarian by substituting crispy fried onions for the bacon/potato chip topping. Probably healthier too, less sodium, no nitrates, less fat (even though the onions are fried), and definitely no saturated fat. For healthier extra crunch and taste, I would add slivered almonds to the crispy fried onion topping.

    The choice of pasta is one of personal taste, but it should be a tubular pasta to carry the cheese sauce, not a spiral pasta. That’s especially important if you’re substituting low-fat milk, cheese, etc. which make the sauce thinner and more runny.

    As for the Neelys and their cooking style… let’s just call it “heart attack on a plate” and be done with it.

  30. ChrisD says:

    I have a recipe for salad dressing, very simple and delicious.
    Olive oil and vinegar (as tasty as you can afford, needn’t be that expensive, vinegar should be white wine or balsamic, in Germany white balsamic vinegar is ~2EUR per bottle), salt and pepper, and, optionally, mustard and yogurt. If you use brown balsamic vinegar then leave out the yogurt as it looks like mud, (but still tastes good).

    A good addition is a tiny amount of feta cheese, say 5 or 6 1cm cubes for a huge salad, mash them up a bit so they are much smaller and thus spread out through the whole salad. I get the kind in a jar with oil as that keeps.

    Sunflower or Rapeseed are also good oils, and very healthy, but slightly less tasty. Pumpkin seed oil is absolutely wonderful and my favourite, but quite expensive.
    Sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds are also a great addition (remember you need some fat and these have very healthy fats).

  31. Kate says:

    Thanks, WilliamB, for the idea about sauteeing breadcrumbs in bacon grease. I have started precooking bacon and then freezing the slices so have a large amount of grease all at once. The dogs love it dribbled over their food, but can only use so much, too.
    Also love the idea about slivered almonds and agree with all those who nix the margarine in favor of butter. Margarine was pushed on the populace for a reason and it was never good for anyone. Butter, in moderation, is a much better alternative.

  32. Claudia says:

    This sounds good, I’m going to try it tomorrow when my grandchildren are here. There is nothing wrong with eating a dish like this once in awhile.
    My father was a former creamery manager and a champion butter maker (they used to have these contests back when every town had a creamery). He loved butter and I’m willing to bet he ate at least a stick a day. A gob on his oatmeal in the AM and healthy shmear on his thick cheese sandwich for lunch and a big gob on his baked potato for supper. Then his night time snack of crumbled bread, sugar, hot milk and another gob of butter. Snacks were usually another hunk of cheese or popcorn with lots of butter. Salads were “rabbit food”, he ate few vegetables and fruit. He was rail thin (looked like Abe Lincoln) and lived till 94. Never went to the doctor until nearly the end of his life.
    It’s in the genes. Because of the way I grew up, I tend to eat more fat (i.e. butter!) than I should and my cholestral is amazingly good!
    Also, substituting margarine for butter is not always a healthier choice. Cutting down on the amount of butter is a better choice and will result in a more pleasing taste.

  33. LDH says:

    MARGARINE? Oh Trent…but I see others have made this point before me. Even so, as a reader of Michael Pollan, “real” food (ie butter) is preferable to margarine. Lower in fat, maybe, but higher in realness. I know you’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma, but In Defense of Food is also worth a read to help make this point (it’s quite short, too).

  34. de says:

    This sounds really good. I wouldn’t substitute margarine for the butter though. If it’s purely for the cost, use olive, peanut or veggie oil. Those will make as good a white sauce. But butter tastes so much better, and as far as fat content, the trans fats in margarine are just as bad for your heart. Margarine also has unpronounceable chemicals in it, while you can find butter without them. If I were serving this as a side, I’d go with butter!

  35. Susan says:

    Personally, I would never eat that for health reasons. Doesn’t appeal to me at all either.

  36. anne says:

    i know what you mean about grating the cheese yourself to save $-

    but i make mac and cheese form scratch often, and i just slice off chunks from a block into the sauce, and it melts fine- even w/ cheddar

    also, i’ll buy cheese when it’s a good price and freeze it- if it’s a 5lb bag of shredded cheddar or mozzarella, i’ll never go through it in the fridge in time, but in the freezer it holds up fine. and i don’t even portion it- i just break off chunks and use it. if i have to, i’ll bang the big bag on the edge of the counter to loosen things up. (i could never host a show on the food network.)

    even sliced american cheese from the deli freezes well

    i’m a vegetarian, so i don’t eat bacon. but i’ll cook up a whole package for my husband and family, and just freeze what we don’t use. and the grease too- sauteeing sliced onions in the grease is good for topping hambugers later

    w/ this recipe i’m w/ everyone who would keep the butter in the recipe. but i would have done 4T (or 1/4 c) butter and skim milk for the sauce- all that cheese is really all you need for the flavor and “mouth feel” in the sauce

    and i’d skip the potato chips.

  37. Dallee says:

    It would be helpful to give the nutritional value per serving — you could run the original and revised recipes through MasterCook or a similar program, or a website which does the same thing for the ingredients.

    On bacon, use nitrate and nitrite free bacon (true of any cured meat). The more servings per month, the more likely COPD and lung problems will arise (and this is true regardless of cigarette smoking status, as shown by a UK study of almost 20,000 people).

    Forget the “low-fat” substitutes for real food — just take a look at the ingredients. Children need real fat to develop healthy nervous systems (fat is used by the body to coat nerve cells). Plus, the substitutes usually have additional carbs from add cheap thickening ingredients. But then, I’m one of those who thinks that real butter (unsalted is always more likely to be fresh) and olive oil are the fats which should be used in cooking … multiple generations in my family have followed that approach, so I am biased.

    Please remember that these pasta dishes originated in side dishes. There is much research to indicate that carbs should not be a major part of the human diet (see this recent post by a UK MD: http://www.drbriffa.com/blog/2009/07/13/high-carb-diets-again-linked-to-increased-risk-of-breast-cancer/).

    Thanks for going through this effort!

  38. Christina says:

    Try this vegan margarine instead: http://www.earthbalancenatural.com/#/products/vegan-sticks/

    It is delicious and healthier than a typical margarine. My dairy allergic family uses it all the time. Too bad there is no good vegan cheese or I would try this recipe.

  39. Mary W says:

    #26 anne – Gee, I thought I was the only one who beat that large bag of frozen cheese on the counter. lol

  40. Anna says:

    That looks soooo good! I can’t wait to try it with my family. I agree with Kathryn, though. Saturated fat helps with brain developement, while highly processed fats like soybean oil (margarine) cause infertility and plenty of other problems. See http://www.westinaprice.org

  41. Jenny says:

    Thanks for always showing us how you made your yummy dinners. That makes it so nice!

  42. I got a big kick out of the comments, from whacking frozen bags of cheese on the counter on up. Lucky for my waistline that my toddler is battling a stomach bug and I’m trying to keep most thing milk out of the house or I’d whip this up in a heartbeat. (Who am I kidding, I’d probably eat most of the pan, and the toddler wouldn’t get much anyway.)

    Appreciate the way you tweak and let us know how that goes – I’m a huge tweaker myself. (But I’ll stick with butter, too.) I linked to this on my weekly roundup – post is under my name. Thanks!

  43. *sara* says:

    I love this series- great ideas and great modifications! Keep em coming!

  44. Claudia says:

    #30 Lenetta, love your honesty! I’d like to eat most of the pan too!
    Sam’s Club is a great place for cheese, I get huge blocks for really cheap. 5# of mozarella for less than $8; in the grocery store I pay over $4 a pound. I usually grate the whole 5# at one time and freeze it I have found that the cheese I grate myself tastes so much better on my homemade pizzas, etc as it doesn’t have the cornstarch that’s added to pre-grated. The frozen grated cheese is easy to break off chunks of and crumble.

  45. Cathie says:

    Well, I logged on to comment about the margarine, as well. I’ve been making my own mac n cheese for years. I always use 4tbs. butter, and 4 tbsp flour to start the bechamel. What makes mine less costly is that I will throw whatever cheese I have in,(besides the required sharp cheddar) and since we always buy the “ends” at the grocery store, it’s almost never the same twice, but always fantastic. I would never use the chips OR the bacon, though. I do use breadcrumbs, and I don’t think I use as much of that.

  46. brooke says:

    Basically you made an alfredo sauce, I do believe.

  47. anne says:

    brooke- this is health food compared to alfredo sauce- honest!!

    alfredo sauce = heavy cream + butter + parmagian cheese


  48. Kelly says:

    Crushed saltine crackers (they can be low sodium and whole wheat) can be added to the top of your mac and cheese .
    It will give the dish a nice texture .
    I would use butter and milk , but leave out the bacon.

  49. NYC reader says:

    I make my homemade mac and cheese with pepper jack cheese or a mix of pepper jack and aged cheddar. I buy Cabot cheeses from the warehouse club. Yum.

    I never buy pre-grated cheese. How hard is it to grate some cheese when needed? If a recipe calls for several cups of grated cheese, you can always do it in the food processor. For this recipe, the cheese used for the sauce doesn’t have to be grated, it will melt quickly if cut in small pieces. Only the cheese for the topping needs to be grated.

    As others have noted, hard cheeses freeze well. I keep a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano in the freezer and cut off a chunk to grate as needed.

    The softer cheeses with higher moisture content (e.g. monterey jack) freeze ok but lose some texture if you’re planning on using them for a sandwich. They are fine for melting and cooking.

  50. Jen says:

    YUM!!! Thanks for the recipe Trent. However, I will be using REAL food to make this: pastured pork bacon and grass-fed organic butter, cheese, and whole milk (raw). No chips for me though. I will use bread crumbs mixed with butter, or fried onions (thanks for the tip #22, NYC reader)!

    It’s so sad that so many people still believe the lipid hypothesis! Healthy fats come from real food: butter, meat (lard and tallow), olives, and coconuts. If everyone ate full fat, real food in moderation, a lot of this country’s health problems would be gone.

  51. graytham says:

    The recipe looks delicious, Trent. Just one comment- I noticed that you put the potato chips on the list of unhealthy ingredients. Yet I remember that you put crushed potato chips on top of your tuna casserole. Anyway, this really looks good!

  52. Kathy says:

    I would agree with the others who have said that if you’re going to substitute the butter, Smart Balance or olive oil would be healthier. They do have fat in them, but it is the “good” fat. Smart Balance might cost more, but do you save the money now by using margarine, or do you save the money later when you are healthier and not having to take cholesterol meds because of bad eating habits in one’s life?

    The only thing is that you can’t use SB or olive oil as a butter substitute when you bake (cakes, pies, etc). That kind of fat won’t stand up to baking.

    We do need some fat in our diet. This is something I personally struggle with in my quest to eat healthier. When I cut out too much fat from my diet, then I crave it and then I “fall off the wagon”. I don’t eliminate butter completely; rather I choose when I use it. A tablespoon or two here and there isn’t going to hurt. I will use real butter for baking, because I don’t do a lot of baking (except for during the holidays). If I did a lot of baking, then I’d probably look at ways to lighten things up and use the butter once in awhile.

  53. Kathy says:

    One other thing I wanted to mention in my last reply, and forgot, is that sometimes, you have to watch how much fat you cut out because if you cut out too much, it could affect the outcome in your dish from a purely chemical and scientific standpoint.

    For example, pie crusts need fat because that’s part of what makes good ones light and flaky. Eliminating fat or making the wrong substitute will give you a yucky pie crust. Sometimes, with sauces they could get runny and separate and not be very good, either. You would have to experiment with how much fat you reduce, cut out, or substitute to get the result you want.

    Yes, I watch a lot of Good Eats. :) Cooking and baking are both one big, fat science experiment.

  54. Johnny H says:

    People, people, people… Obesity, is not caused by consuming too much dietary fat. If eating fat, makes you fat, then maybe I can eat brains and become smarter.

    Excess processed carbohydrates in addition to inflammatory oils (margarine is poison) are causing obesity. It’s very disheartening for me to hear the myth of a low fat, low calorie diet repeated as if it’s fact by so many unhealthy Americans.

    If you want to be healthy then don’t eat processed foods. Simple as that. As Jack Lelaine, the 94 badass says, “If man made it, don’t eat it. If it tastes good, spit it out.”

  55. Kathy says:

    If I was doing this as a treat meal and if I wanted to substitute for butter. Healthier is coconut oil, you can get the kind that has the coconut flavor taken out, and it has short chain fatty acids, which our bodies need. I wouldn’t do turkey bacon, instead I’d buy natural bacon without the preservatives. Pederson’s and Applewood are good brands. Meatier and no extra chemicals. Being allergic to milk and wheat, I would substitute goats milk for cows milk and rice pasta for the wheat. 2 Tablespoons of fat can make a good roux for cheese sauce no need for 6. then you can substitute non fat evaporated milk for regular milk and still have creamy results.

  56. Juli says:

    Everyone is talking about the butter v. margarine but no one has mentioned what the butter is used for here. You’re making a roux, the traditional french thickening agent for your cheese sauce and it’s usually equal parts of flour and fat. I don’t think roux works with margarine.

    Say it with me, Trent, margarine is EVIL. Partially hydrogenated fats are EVIL. My favorite TV chef (Alton Brown) puts it this way, if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

    Anyway, back to the roux. Butter is going to be the best because it tastes good plus it’s healthier. If you’re that concerned about butter, olive oil is a better choice.

    Also, the longer you cook the roux, the more thickening power you lose. Cook it until it’s the consistency of wet sand at the shoreline and only until it gives off a slightly nutty smell. The browner you let it get, the less thick your resulting sauce will be.

    And pre-grated cheese has additives to keep it from clumping in the bag. Keep additives out of your family by grating your own cheese.

    For the topping, skip the potato chips and use corn flakes.

  57. Elizabeth says:

    Trent, one great substitute for crumbled potato chips is panko breadcrumbs. It has a really crisp texture but no fat to start, so you can control how much fat you add in to make it moist enough for a topping. I tend to do a mix of 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon of real butter melted together for each cup of panko. You can add in any seasoning you like for added flavor, I do smoked paprika for for the extra bonus of color.

    And although I agree that in general margarine is not healthier than butter, it’s good to know that food labeling laws allow anything with less than .5g trans fat to claim 0g. So you might be looking at a butter substitute option that has .49g trans fat and not know it.

  58. Matt says:

    I agree with some of the above posters. Especially if you cook the bacon on something like a Foreman grill where the grease just drips off, I’d take pork bacon over turkey bacon any day. And butter over margarine. Usually, I just reduce the amount of butter they ask for in the first place. Skim milk all the way.

    With just diced potatoes, skim milk and bacon (a few tablespoons of the drippings to fry the potatoes), you can make a mean cheesey potato soup. Great on a warm day. I opt to just avoid the ridiculous heavy cream-based recipes in the first place. You just don’t need it to have a great meal.

  59. Christine says:

    Ok – curosity has gotten the best of me.
    I went to http://caloriecount.about.com/foods and compared the ingredients and the nutrition info. Here is what I have found out:
    The original: (serves 8)
    Calories: 712, Fat: 40 gm (saturated fat 23 gm), Cholesterol 161 mg, Sodium 1278 mg, Carbohydrates 50g ms, Protein 36 gms.
    Trent’s version: (serves 4)
    Calories 717, Fat: 36 gm (saturated fat 21gm), Cholesterol 112 mg, Sodium 1307 mg, Carbohydrates 59 gm, Protein 40 gm.
    Now, a couple substitutions that were made simply because of website did not have the nutrition info for potato chips (it is probably there, I just didn’t find it), so I used saltine crackers. And I used Parmesan cheese instead of Romano cheese. Probably the biggest difference is the portion size!!! I hope this has helped anyone as curious as I was!

  60. Robin says:

    No need for butter OR margarine if you substitute cornstarch for the flour. In a sauce, use 1 tbsp. cornstarch for every 2 tbsp. flour in the recipe. Mix COLD milk into the cornstarch, then cook, stirring constantly. It will thicken as soon as it reaches the boiling point. Even made with skim milk, this sauce has PLENTY of fat from the cheese — not to mention bacon and potato chips.

    Trent — please elaborate on using kale as a substitute for potato chips! Do you just put chopped kale in the oven and bake until crisp, or do you toss it with oil first? I’m really interested in trying this, because it sounds so unlikely!

  61. Hannah says:

    Hi Trent,
    I wanted to direct you to http://thepioneerwoman.com/photography/2009/07/taking-photos-of-food-8-tips/ this post. I like the idea of posting frugal recipes on the simple dollar, but as an avid reader of food blogs with outstanding photography, I have to say your pictures detract from my enjoyment of the articles a little bit. They could be a little more professional looking.

  62. I too am surprised that you would consider margarine to be a healthier choice than butter.

    Regarding the photography, I was wondering if you’d considered hiring someone to help you with the photography. I know you have a group of people who are friends of the Simple Dollar, and maybe some of them would be willing to do food photos for you, if you don’t have a good camera.

    PW’s post has some very good ideas in it, and probably the best advice is to skip your flash. I always take my food photos in daylight, in somewhat close proximity to a window (sometimes I have to take a pot off the stove and put it on a potholder somewhere else in my kitchen to take a photo, but it’s so worth it). Natural light makes food look SO much more appetizing.

  63. Ruth says:

    My little take… just put the milk in a cold pan and slowly heat it and add the flour. really no need for the butter there. I’d save it for later… what I do is when i’m done making my pasta and I put it in the cassarole dish with the cheese sauce. I put about a tablespoon of butter in the pan and add some garlic on top (powder or fresh depending on what I have) and then add a few tablespoons of bread crumbs in with the garlic… they get crispy and garlicly and then I add that on top of the mac and cheese and bake it like that! it’s awesome (and a total rip off of a dish they serve at Dave and Busters btw) and if you bake up a little chicken and serve it together it’s even better!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *