Research Report: When Nerds Attack … Macaroni and Cheese Edition

Macaroni and cheese like your mother never made it.

A few weeks back, at a friend's birthday party, we were served macaroni and cheese made in mini-muffin cups. Basically, this meant that the mac and cheese was all crunchy edge bits. And the Official Blog Spouse loves crunchy edge bits. In fact, he loves anything crunchy. "Could you make that for me?"

"I guess," I said. We don't have mini-muffin tins, but we do have regular muffin tins. And I have a pretty good recipe for macaroni and cheese. Armed with these two things last weekend, I prepared for an experiment.

Looking at the muffin tins gave me an idea: While we were experimenting, why not really experiment? With little individual servings, we could do what marketers call A/B testing: Try two different variants, and see which one you like better. Then do it again, over and over.

Actually, we ended up doing something a little more like A/B/C testing: three flavors of macaroni and cheese, three toppings and a bottle of wine to wash it all down with.

First, I made one box of elbow macaroni, cooked according to instructions. Then, I prepared the standard white sauce that is the base for all my macaroni and cheese creations:

80 grams butter
120 grams flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 kilogram milk (Yes, I weighed it, because that's how my recipe works. It comes out to something over 1 liter.)

To this I added 4 ounces of shredded white American cheese (eeeewwwww, you are saying, and I quite agree, but it helps keep your sauce smooth when you use a cheese like Gruyere, and you can't taste it). Then 8 ounces of Monterey Jack. These mild cheeses with good melt points were stirred into the white sauce along with a grating of black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (a few pinches of cayenne make a fine substitute) and 1 teaspoon of dry mustard.

Then I divided the base into three. Each third got 6 ounces to 8 ounces more cheese, stirred in over low heat.

Recipe 1: One part provolone to four parts Gruyere, a grating of nutmeg and considerably more black pepper

Recipe 2: Cabot's extra sharp cheddar

Recipe 3: Three parts cheddar to one part Cabot's pepper jack.

I was worried about too much cheese, so of course I ended up undershooting a bit. We both agreed that the cheddar would have benefited from at least a couple more ounces.

This mixture was ladled into two muffin pans. In each muffin pan, the columns were divided the same way: Gruyere on the left, pepper jack in the middle, cheddar on the right.

We varied the topping by row. Some got panko. Some got grated Monterey Jack. And some got crushed pretzel chips (everything flavor). The results were interesting.

Result 1: Even in larger muffin pans, as long as you cooled it for a few minutes before removing the final product, you got a deliciously crunchy and coherent macaroni and cheese that could be served as a hand-held bite. The cheese topping was easiest to eat, and Peter preferred it, but I rather liked the crumb topping -- I might try to put a layer of cheese directly below it. Alternatively, you could first bake the crumbs at the bottom of the muffin tins, almost like a pie crust, and then put cheese on top.

Result 2: Everything-flavored pretzel chips make a delicious topping for macaroni and cheese, but you can eat only one. After that, it's too much, so this would be a fun appetizer, but not a good idea for a whole meal. The cheddar recipe was the preferred flavor with this one; the pepper jack was too assertive, and we both agreed that the Gruyere version, while delicious, would have been better with plain pretzel chips.

Result 3: A little bit of pepper jack is the perfect amount for macaroni and cheese. It punched up the flavor without being too assertive. This was my favorite. Peter, who is a Swiss cheese nut, liked that version best. But why choose? The beauty of this method is that with a little extra work, in the form of dirty pans, you can make something for everyone.

Result 4: You should totally try this for your next buffet.

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