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 hours...at 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.
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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.