Life on the Hill doesn’t exactly allow ample opportunity for experimentation with cooking, leading to a routine diet at the dining halls. Over the course of the quarter, columnist Andrew Warner sets out to break the culinary monotony of dorm life, armed with a rice cooker and a few pantry staples.
Microwaveable mac and cheese is second only to instant ramen noodles on the list of cheap and nutritionally deficient meals that college students live on.
As much as I love microwaveable mac and cheese, sometimes it just doesn’t quite hit the spot. Something about pouring a package of heavily processed cheese powder over some overcooked pasta just isn’t as satisfying as making it from scratch.
That’s where rice cooker mac and cheese comes in. While it’s certainly not the same Thanksgiving side dish we all know and love, rice cooker mac and cheese is a creamier, far more comforting meal than the Kraft boxes residing in dorm closets.
Cooking pasta in a rice cooker is a little bit different from cooking pasta in a normal kitchen. Instead of boiling the water first and then adding the pasta as I normally would, I added the pasta to cold water like the microwave version. Using cold water allowed me to set the rice cooker aside so I could go off and study without having to watch the water come to a boil.
My main complaint about adding the pasta to cold water is that it slightly overcooked the pasta. It wasn’t mushy, but I prefer my pasta al dente, which it was not. The pasta still had a little bit of spring, but it didn’t quite have the same wholesome quality that traditionally cooked pasta does.
Once the water started boiling, the starchy pasta water began bubbling up through my rice cooker’s steam vent. Be sure to keep an eye on the rice cooker as the pasta cooks so that the overflow doesn’t make too much of a mess.
Luckily, I’m no stranger to rice cooker overflow – last week’s curry also seeped through the edges of my rice cooker – so I was able to troubleshoot immediately. While it is important to allow the water to reduce naturally so the sauce doesn’t get too runny later, it’s more important to keep the exterior of the rice cooker dry. I kept a roll of paper towels near me throughout the cooking process so that I could wipe up the water as it seeped out of my rice cooker.
When the pasta itself was almost finished cooking, I added the cream and cheese to the mix. At first, the mixture looked more like a watery cheese soup than a mac and cheese, but as the sauce boiled, it thickened up, thanks to the starch in the noodles and the evaporation of the cooking water from the sauce.
The rice cooker mac and cheese was difficult to clean up not just because of the mild water spillage, but also because the sauce thickens considerably when it cools down. The sauce, while smooth and velvety when warm, becomes a sticky congealed mass that’s hard to scrub off when it cools down, so I recommend doing the dishes immediately upon finishing the food.
I served the mac and cheese to a couple of friends who said it was tasty, but could use some extra seasoning. As far as mac and cheeses go, my recipe is fairly run-of- the-mill, but dorm chefs with more refined palates might want to try adding some parsley or other herbs to jazz up the overall flavor profile.
Different cheeses or cheese blends are also a great way to switch things up – I used a sharp white cheddar and the final product was reminiscent of Panera Bread’s mac and cheese, but other cheeses like mozzarella can add an extra dimension of creaminess to the sauce.
Mine had a slight tanginess thanks to the sharp cheddar cheese I used, and while the noodles were definitely slightly overcooked, it tasted okay because some of the noodles crisped up at the bottom of the pot, giving off the illusion of toothsomeness.
Although I was skeptical at first of the sauce’s ability to thicken up and cling to the noodles effectively, the rice cooker mac and cheese sauce was creamy and well-distributed throughout the pasta.
All in all, rice cooker mac and cheese is quite a simple recipe – only six ingredients and a couple of steps – but its simplicity does not, by any means, compromise its flavor. Unlike the microwaveable packages in my snack box, rice cooker mac and cheese uses fresh and unprocessed ingredients, lending it a much more robust and filling quality.