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10 Modern Variations on Macaroni and Cheese

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Christaface

Photograph by Flickr user Christaface.

Macaroni and cheese is a traditional comfort food in America, born of the fact that it's relatively cheap, simple to prepare, and most importantly, kids like it. You don't stop liking comfort foods when you grow up, but occasionally you want to try something different. Once, I was visiting my parents on a school break and made some macaroni and cheese for my father. He said, "This is good. Is it from a kit, or did you make it from scratch?" I was a bit embarrassed to admit that it was ready made and frozen. Since then I have learned to make macaroni and cheese a few different ways that make me feel like I'm really cooking. However, most of the variations here are things I have yet to try.

Photograph by Flickr user Rosalyn Davis.

The macaroni and cheese we know today was developed by culinary visionary Thomas Jefferson, who built his own pasta machine to add improvements over one he'd bought. The traditional variations on putting cheese on macaroni (or using a boxed kit) include baking it with a crust formed by crushed potato chips or crackers; spicing it up with mustard or chili powder; adding crumbled bacon, diced ham, cut up hot dogs, or broccoli florets; and for feeding young children, sneaking in pureed vegetables. That never fooled my pasta-addicted kid for a minute. And then, at a certain age, children discover the "gourmet" version called fettuccine Alfredo. If you've never made macaroni and cheese from scratch, try a delicious homemade mac and cheese recipe without any of the extras (which you can add in the future). When you get more adventurous, here are some strange and modern variations.

1. Macaroni and Cheese Stuffed Jalapeno Peppers Wrapped in Bacon

There's not much to describe about this recipe from Carrie B at Bakeaholic Mama that's not in its name, except that I second the advice about handling jalapeños. You don't want the juice on your hands, because you'll eventually touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, and it will burn. Just reading the title Macaroni and Cheese Stuffed Jalapeno Peppers Wrapped in Bacon makes me hungry.

2. Deep Fried Mac & Cheese

You may have seen Deep-fried Mac and Cheese (on a stick) at your local festival. Yes, you can make it at home. Supereric at Instructables tell you how, step by step. The secret is to freeze the prepared macaroni and cheese so that it will keep its shape long enough to deep-fry.

3. Mac n Cheese Pie

JustJENN shows us a variation of baked macaroni and cheese with the addition of a delicious pie crust. It's your choice whether to make the crust from scratch or use a pre-prepared crust, and your dinner guests don't need to know you didn't make it all yourself.

4. Waffled Macaroni and Cheese

You can't exactly make mac and cheese in a waffle maker, because you have to have boiling water. However, Waffleizer has a way to dress up your leftover mac and cheese with the aid of a waffle iron. Chill it, bread it up, and mash it in a hot waffle iron for a completely different dish!

5. Macaroni and Cheese Sushi Rolls

Making sushi rolls out of macaroni and cheese is a presentation trick that contains no fish or rice, but will impress dinner guests. Dan at Food in My Beard developed the technique using boxed mac and cheese, taco meat, and sriracha sauce. He shows you how to do it in a series of pictures to go with the recipe.

6. Mac and Cheese Grilled Cheese

Many of us look at a grilled cheese sandwich as a comfort food from childhood, too, so why not combine those two recipes? Umm… because it's redundant? Foodies never let that stop a good experiment! Russell Warnick came up with a mac and cheese recipe with garlic and truffles to stuff between slices of bread. Now you can eat mac and cheese with one hand and no utensils!

7. Mac and Cheese Burrito

An even easier way to eat mac and cheese with your hands is to simply scoop the stuff into a tortilla and make a burrito. This simple dish has its own Facebook fan page. It's not very active, but hundreds of people like it.

8. Ramac and Cheese

You don't have to use traditional elbow macaroni or even shells to make mac and cheese. Ramen noodles will work, according to this tip from Serious Eats. The texture is different, so it is recommended that you put some crunch into it by broiling the top layer.

9. Chocolate Covered Mac and Cheese

Dan at The Food in my Beard came across chocolate mac and cheese at a restaurant and decided to recreate the experience in his own kitchen. You may feel better about it knowing that it is not a sweet dish, but contains poblano peppers, bacon, and very dark chocolate -no added sugar.

10. Mac 'n' Cheese Martini

The most bizarre version of mac and cheese ever must be the Mac 'n' Cheese Martini. It is supposedly from Donovan's Prime Steakhouse Restaurant, but since it is not mentioned on the website, there's a possibility it may be a temporary offering.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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