Pairing Off: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese

Each week, Pairing Off attempts to find just the right bottle of wine to go with ordinary food.

There were no deluxe boxes with creamy, canned cheese goo when I was a kid. There were no cartoon-shaped pastas, either. All we had was regular old macaroni and a packet of salty powder that magically transformed into orange paste when dumped into the pan.

And somehow this is the stuff that got a generation hooked on mac & cheese.

I'm not here to question how this improbable thing occurred. But the cravings are bad. Very bad. So bad that when an expat shop in Prague received a shipment of Kraft macaroni & cheese, they generally sold out in a matter of roughly $20 per box.

Hell, I didn't even want to spend that much on the wine for this week's pairing. I figured fake cheese powder bolstered by sodium could wreck any good wine, whatever the price point.

In this, however, I was thankfully mistaken.

A clerk at Vin Classic in Plano simply asked "red or white?" When I shrugged in response, he stepped toward a California Merlot, sale priced at $11.99--down from $14 or so--with the improbable name of Jed Steele's Shooting Star, vintage 2007.

Great, wine by a man named Jed.

But the Merlot smelled of terroir: rusty metal, chalk, ripe fruit and dry chile. On the palate, it's a perplexing thing, at once forward and relaxed, slinging plum, spice and old leaves at you--then falling back into softer notes of wood and aloe. More intrigue comes from the striking juicy finish, which hides a meaty quality that I just couldn't deconstruct.

Now, Kraft advises buyers to cook the pasta for seven minutes or so (until it begins to melt). At that point, the box says to throw in margarine and low-fat milk. In my kitchen, such as it is, I keep only real butter and either half and half or heavy cream--a point I bring up because this may have altered the experiment. The orange cheese powder was nowhere near as salty as I remember.

Against this mellowed mac, Jed's wine gathers some depth, narrowing to wood and ripe fruit, though with a sharp spicy but not quite tannic edge. As you continue with the meal, this aspect softens, blending into the cheese flavor, finding companionship in the oozing texture.

It's a good pairing--one that works because the wine mutes itself just enough to get along with cheap packaged food.

Still don't know how this stuff became comfort fare. Don't even know why I finished the entire box.