You could say it started with the "Cheesepocalypse" - you know, all those stories about a Velveeta shortage that have had everyone in a tizzy!
But there's no need to worry. You can make it yourself - a homemade "food prepper" version of liquid gold.
Before you laugh, hear me out. Processed cheese, like those individually wrapped singles, often gets a bad rap, but just try getting that perfect ooze and silky texture from any other cheese when you melt it. Real cheese tends to separate when heated, the proteins clumping together while fats and moisture ooze out in the most unattractive way.
When making the cheese, you can try substituting a similar fresh semi-firm cheese for the cheddar, such as Gouda. Additional flavorings and spices, such as chili powder, chopped chives or chiles, can be added after the processor stage. The recipe calls for solid cheese to be grated. Pre-grated cheeses are often coated with starch to keep them from clumping; this added starch can negatively affect the final texture of the processed cheese in this recipe.
Cheesepocalypse averted, I'll be using the processed mild cheddar in my queso dip for all my parties. I can't say I'll never buy processed cheese again, but there's nothing like being able to make and flavor it myself.
Best of all? I know exactly what went into it.
HOMEMADE PROCESSED CHEESE
Total time: 20 minutes, plus chilling time; makes about 13 ounces
8 ounces solid mild cheddar (see note below)
1/4 cup nonfat milk powder
2 tablespoons tapioca flour or starch
3/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup water
Line a 12-ounce ramekin or similar-sized small loaf pan or mold with plastic wrap.
Very finely grate the cheese and place it in a food processor. Add the milk powder, tapioca flour and salt, and pulse to thoroughly combine.
In a small saucepan, combine the butter, wine and water. Cover and quickly bring to a boil over high heat, 1 to 2 minutes.
Immediately remove from heat and, with the processor running, slowly pour the hot liquid in with the cheese. Continue processing until the cheese is fully melted and all of the ingredients are incorporated, scraping the bowl once or twice in between processing.
Spoon the cheese into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth the top and cover with plastic wrap.
Refrigerate the cheese until fully set and firm enough to slice, preferably several hours or overnight. The cheese will keep for up to one month, covered and refrigerated.
Nutrition per ounce: calories 98; 5 g protein: 2 g carbohydrates; 8 g fat; 5 g saturated fat: 23 mg cholesterol; 1 g sugar; 183 mg sodium.
SMOKED GOUDA MAC 'N' CHEESE
Time: 1 hour; serves 4 to 6
1/2 pound dry macaroni or similar pasta
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 chopped onion
3/4 cup hard cider
1 batch (13 ounces) homemade American cheese, made using smoked Gouda, cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup milk
3/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste
Freshly ground pepper
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely grated smoked fresh Gouda cheese
Boil the pasta to al dente according to the instructions on the packaging. Drain the pasta well and spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet, very lightly oiling the pasta to keep it from sticking.
Set aside and heat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. Stir in the chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened and lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes.
Stir in the hard cider, scraping to dislodge any flavorings from the base of the pan. Bring the cider to a simmer.
Add the cheese, a few cubes at a time, stirring to melt. When the cheese is mostly melted, stir in the milk. Once all of the cheese is melted and the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated to form a sauce, stir in the cooked pasta. Season with the salt and several grinds of black pepper, or to taste.
Spoon the pasta and sauce into a 11/2- to 2-quart gratin dish.
To make the topping, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter, then stir in the bread crumbs and grated Gouda cheese until evenly combined, with the bread crumbs lightly coated with butter. Taste and add a pinch of salt, or as desired. Sprinkle the topping over the pasta.
Bake the macaroni until the sauce is bubbly along the edges and the topping is crisp and a light golden color, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and cool slightly before serving.
Nutrition per serving: 491 calories; 18 g protein: 41 g carbohydrates; 2 g fiber; 26 g fat; 16 g saturated fat: 86 mg cholesterol; 4 g sugar; 820 mg sodium.
CHILE CON QUESO
Time: 50 minutes; serves 8 to 10
3 jalapenos, or to taste
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup beer, preferably pale lager
2 batches (26 ounces) homemade processed cheese, cut into roughly 1-inch cubes
1/2 to 1 cup milk, or as desired
Roast the jalapenos: Place the chiles on a rack set over a gas stove-top burner heated over high heat. Roast until the skin on all sides of each chile is charred, about 5 minutes, turning frequently. (If you have an electric or ceramic stove top, roast the chiles in the oven using the broiler setting until charred on all sides.)
Wrap each pepper in plastic wrap and set aside until the peppers are cool enough to handle. Rub the plastic wrap against the skin to loosen and remove it. Do not rinse the peppers to remove the skin, as rinsing will remove flavor. Stem and seed each pepper, then dice the peppers into roughly one-fourth-inch pieces. Set aside.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened and lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the garlic, then add the diced tomatoes and jalapenos.
Cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the cumin.
Stir in the beer, scraping any flavorings from the base of the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-low and begin to stir in the cheese, a few cubes at a time. Continue to add more cubes as the cheese melts, stirring constantly.
Stir in one-half cup milk when most of the cheese has been added, then continue to stir until all of the cheese is melted to form the queso. Adjust the consistency of the queso with additional milk as desired. Taste and adjust the seasoning with three-fourths teaspoon salt, or as desired.
This makes about 6 cups queso.
Nutrition in each of 10 serving: 310 calories; 14 g protein: 10 g carbohydrates; 1 g fiber; 23 g fat; 13 g saturated fat: 62 mg cholesterol; 5 g sugar; 753 mg sodium.