The Great Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off

(Traverse City, MI) — For years, we’ve wanted to attend The Great Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off held annually at wineries on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City, Michigan on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Between travel and holiday events, however, we’ve never been able to make the trip...until this year. The event sells out quickly, so we snag tickets as soon as they’re available, then travel north to spend a festive weekend with friends John and Di...

He Fed:

There are few things in life more comforting than macaroni and cheese, and while I’m a lover of the simple pasta dish, we expect great things from such a venerable (and hotly contested) culinary competition. The coordinators have divvied up the attendees evenly so equal groups start at each of the seven wineries, then must proceed in numerical order.

Even though kickoff is 10a, there are people already ahead of us in the tasting room at Black Star Farms, joyfully sipping small pours. We collect our wine glass and plate, which we’ll tote around for the day to each stop. Food prep lags, so we kick around the tasting room, admiring the selection until we’re called in. I’m first, managing to snag a freshly prepared Five Cheese Macaroni and Pancetta in a Cheese Cup dish presented by the Inn at Black Star Farms. It’s a delicious blend of salty, cheesy pasta though the cheese cup is a bit chewy. Still, I enjoy it immensely.

Next, we drive all the way to the northernmost stop: 2 Lads. The winery is beautiful, set atop a hill that overlooks the bay. Inside, it’s modern and slightly industrial looking. The pinot noir is better than most Michigan wines I’ve endured (sorry...just not a fan of Michigan wines), and does pair nicely with the Roasted Squash and Sausage Macaroni & Cheese with White and Yellow Cheddar. Unfortunately, the food is less than compelling. I do not dig the breakfast sausage they picked and the whole dish just falls flat.

Chateau Chantal comes after, where we face a long line of hungry patrons. I’m not sure why it takes so long to serve up a tiny taste of mac & cheese, until we get near the front. Evidently, the restaurant Mana pulled out of the competition last minute and Chateau Chantal’s in-house chef stepped in to fill the gap. That’s pretty cool, except now the chef is explaining the dish in great detail to every person in line as they come up to get served. His spiel is convincing though, and I’m excited to try his interpretation, called Chateau Chantal Cavatappi Blanc. Despite all the cheddar, Parmesan, and Havarti, this is one dry and tasteless. Our group looks at one another, shrugs, dumps the remainder, then moves on.

Thankfully, our successive venture proves more fruitful. Bowers Harbor has erected a tent and a clever queue to shepherd people through generous tastings of their sweet but fun vintages, then onto food. There’s a rip-roaring fire pit with chairs surrounding, bluegrass music pumped through speakers, and pretty ladies in cowboy boots pouring wine. The chef from Aerie Restaurant bellows good-naturedly and dishes up Smoked Beef Brisket Mac and Cheese. It turns out to be the best dish of the day for me, with smoky meat and a touch of boursin cheese that makes me wish for much more.

We are feeling more optimistic when we pull into the impressive Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery. There’s another long line to wait in, now that more folks have joined the gathering, before we’re ushered past gigantic barrels and casks into the fermentation room. One of our favorite eateries, Cook’s House, is dishing up a Pulled Pork, Caramelized Onion & Aged Swiss Cheese Mac-N-Cheese. It’s a good dish, but just kind of...ordinary. I expected more from this restaurant.

Nearing the end, we scoot south to Chateau Grand Traverse. The wine attendants here are more friendly and conversational, so we linger a bit longer. Siren Hall provided the Mac & Cheese, made with smoked beef brisket, cheddar, and spinach. I really dig the brisket (see a theme here?) but the spinach is a little off-putting. Everyone else seems to enjoy it immensely, and now we have a team divided—half for Siren Hall, and half for Aerie. (Chocolates offered on the way out of Chateau Grand Traverse may have swayed it for the ladies.)

Finally, we arrive at our last stop: Peninsula Cellars. It’s a converted church or schoolhouse, and more than a little cramped. Patrons have to take turns going in and out the main door. By now, we’re about wined out and more than slightly jaded about what constitutes good mac & cheese. Mission Table serves up a dollop of Hay Smoked Mac ‘n Cheese with Pancetta and Butternut Squash. It is clearly undercooked, with tough bits of butternut squash and slightly warmer than room temperature noodles. After a couple bites, the rest goes in the trash.

In the end, I enjoyed the camaraderie and the adventure but was ultimately disappointed in the mostly uninspired and run-of-the-mill offerings. I realize this is Michigan, and most folks don’t want “weird” food paired with their overly-sweet and cloying Michigan wine, but for an event this long-lived, there should have been more daring entries. Glad to have done it once, and glad it’s over.
She Fed:

After years of talking about, but never being able to actually attend the Great Mac ‘n Cheese Bake-Off on Mission Peninsula, this is the year! Our Traverse City pals John & Di are available, the tickets are purchased, and nothing’s standing in our way. Until I receive the news I’ll be having oral surgery five days before the event. The nurse advises to chew on one side of my mouth, take small bites, and swish the area out frequently with liquids. I know she means salt water, but I’ll be substituting Michigan wines this once.

Our first stop is Black Star Farms at the base of the peninsula. Turns out vicodin and I do not play well together, but wine seems to dull the pain better than aspirin. Even at 10 am, molar #19 is jonesing for some vino. We enjoy a few tastes and then are welcomed to line up for mac ‘n cheese.The Inn at Black Star Farms has entered a Five Cheese Macaroni and Pancetta in a Cheese Cup. Bonus points for originality in plating! It’s got a good flavor, bolstered by the one piece of pancetta in my serving (Di gets no pancetta and the boys end up with our share in their cups). The cup is too chewy for me given my “handicap” at the moment. This would have been my favorite of the day had it not been so dry; good mac ‘n cheese needs that creamy, ooey-gooey factor.

Our next stop is 2 Lads winery at the top of the peninsula. The drive is scenic, and on approach we admire the modern architecture of the 2 Lads facility, very unique to the area. Bay Town Kitchen is serving a Roasted Squash and Sausage Macaroni & Cheese with White and Yellow Cheddar. I despise most squash and take a tentative bite, finding I can barely taste it. The breakfast sausage adds a nice hint of sage. The last dish was relatively light, but this one is dense and heavy. I can’t finish it, knowing we’ve got five more stops to make.

There’s a bit of a line when we get to Chateau Chantal, allowing us to soak in the gorgeous views. While Mana was the featured restaurant, they’ve had to cancel. The chef explains they’ve made the dish in-house using one of their white wines in the cheese sauce with havarti, Parm and white cheddar. He dishes up the Chateau Chantal Cavatappi Blanc 2012 which smells amazing. Unfortunately it’s incredibly dry as though the cavatappi absorbed all the sauce.

As we pull into Bowers Harbor Vineyards, we see they’ve set up a big tent and heat lamps out back. Aerie restaurant is featuring Smoked Beef Brisket Mac and Cheese with a boursin cheese sauce. I don’t think you could name anything that couldn’t be improved with the addition of boursin cheese and this is no exception. It’s creamy, smoky at the finish, and comforting all around. I finally got the ooey-gooey factor and I’d like to go back for seconds, but we’ve got three more entries to try.

Jeremy and I have been anticipating Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery as they’ve partnered with The Cook’s House, one of our all time favorite eateries in Northern Michigan. Cook’s is serving Pulled Pork, Caramelized Onion & Aged Swiss Cheese Mac-N-Cheese, which sounds divine. I take my first bite and it’s not quite right. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is “off” with the dish. I can’t get past three bites and I notice several half-eaten portions in the trash as I dump mine. So disappointing.

Siren Hall is serving their namesake mac ‘n cheese at Chateau Grand Traverse. It’s packed with smoked brisket and spinach. Red pepper flakes and hot sauce give it heat. Overcooked spinach has an “ammonia” taste on my palate. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s what I’m getting in a few bitefuls here and there. Luckily, the pinot noir they’re pouring washes the ammonia away and appeases molar #19.

Our last stop is Peninsula Cellars with mac ‘n cheese by Mission Table. The servers explain how they smoked cream cheese over organic hay as they dish up generous portions of Hay Smoked Mac 'n Cheese with Pancetta and Butternut Squash. The squash is rock hard, seems completely raw, and there’s no way I’m trying to bite into it. The pancetta is incredibly tough and chewy, so I just dig in to the pasta which is creamy and slightly smoky. Best of all is the panko breadcrumbs cooked in the rendered pancetta fat.

We grab our ballots and vote while savoring our last wine tasting. I was hoping to be wowed today. But there was no bacon, no truffle salt (overdone, I know), not even a morsel of seafood. It was a fun way to spend four hours, but it seems like the restaurants were playing it a bit safe, when we were expecting a little “zazazu.” Glad we could go, but I doubt this will become an annual outing for us.

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