The new Trader Joe’s Vegan Mac and Cheese has sparked elation coupled with the tiniest bit of hesitation. Of course, we’re thrilled the product exists, but we stopped short of lunging at the shelves when we eyed the saucy tub in the prepared foods section; the ever-so-slight greyish tint admittedly gave us pause. Thanks to the friendly store staff, we sampled the pasta on-site and found it to be good with the potential to be great. It does need a generous pinch of salt, but then you can let your imagination run wild; we did. Here are nine surefire ways to take this staple mac and cheese to the next level.

1. Panko-crusted
Dust off your casserole dish and set the oven to 350 degrees, because this mac is begging to be baked. Top with a large handful of panko or gluten-free breadcrumbs to add some much-needed texture to this silky sauce. Bake until golden brown and bubbling, then allow to cool just enough to not scald the roof of your mouth. 

2. Peas and trees
Take a tip from childhood and recreate this playful dish. While heating the pasta on medium-low over the stovetop, mix in a handful of frozen peas until warmed through. Serve topped with steamed or roasted broccoli. You can also swap spinach for peas and asparagus for broccoli; either way, what kid or adult would turn down a vegetable if it’s covered in cheese sauce? 

3. Kale and crispy shiitake bacon
Let’s call this adult mac and cheese. Over the stovetop on medium-low, wilt in torn kale with the pasta. Transfer to a bowl and make it rain with either homemade or store-bought shiitake bacon. For extra protein, tempeh bacon works just as well (just make sure it has a good, crisp char to it). Want to get really fancy? Drizzle truffle oil over the top and charge your dining companions $25 a bowl. 

4. Mac and cheese dog
Ditch the ketchup and mustard and load up your vegan frank with mac and cheese. Go the distance by adding a drizzle of sriracha or crispy fried onions and chopped cornichons. Note: toast your bun; the bread needs a golden barrier to stand up to the cheese sauce.   

5. Squash, sage, caramelized onions, and cashew parm
Mix the mac with tender-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside cubed and roasted butternut squash along with sweet and savory caramelized onions and a pinch of dried sage. Place a scoopful into an oven-safe dish or individual ramekins, top with a layer of cashew parmesan, and broil until it smells nutty and golden brown. This is what winter nights were made for.  

6. Bread bowl and crudité
Turn a meal into a crowd-pleasing party food by spooning bubbling-hot mac and cheese into a carved-out sourdough boule. Serve alongside bread cubes and raw crudité for an appetizer your guests will literally tear apart. This also works as a dinner-for-two (or one) on nights when you’re in a carb-craving daze. 

7. Mac and cheese waffle
Yes, you can waffle it! Spread the mac and cheese into a thin layer on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet, then refrigerate the sheet for 30 minutes or until set. Cut the firmed-up mac into a square slightly smaller than your waffle iron and place it into the greased iron. Set the clamp and cook for three to four minutes until the edges have browned. Top with fresh scallions and enjoy your mac with a knife and fork. 

8. Mushroom-stuffed mac
Can’t get enough shrooms in your diet? Roast portobello mushrooms in the oven until tender. Fill each with a heaping scoop of warm mac and cheese. Dust with Trader Joe’s Multipurpose Umami Seasoning and fresh thyme or green onions. To show off, splatter the plate Jackson Polluck-style with a pop of vegan pesto before nestling your stuffed portobello atop the edible artwork. 

9. Cheesy chicken(less) casserole
Embrace the beauty of stick-to-your-ribs Midwestern cooking with this protein-packed casserole. Instead of salt, mix in a few dashes of Trader Joe’s Chicken-less Seasoning Salt in addition to bite-sized Trader Joe’s Chicken-less strips. Pour into a casserole dish and top with crushed vegan-friendly butter crackers (try Back to Nature Classic Round Crakers). Bake until bubbly and golden brown on top. We think we just found our new potluck dish. 

Tanya Flink is a Digital Editor at VegNews as well as a writer and runner living in Orange County, CA.

Photo credit: Big Box Vegan

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