MSR Backcountry Cafe: Make Ahead Mac-N-Cheese

Story and Photos by Tara Alan

Where I live, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the first yellow, orange, and russet leaves are beginning to appear scattered upon the ground. Nights are becoming cool enough to wear a jacket, and the scent of wood smoke is apparent on the breeze. It’s clear that autumn is just around the corner!


What better way to spend these glorious end-of-summer days than in the woods? And what better way to end them than with an evening of camping? On chill nights like these, I want a supper that’s warm and cheesy, quick and easy: macaroni and cheese.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s a spectrum of macaroni and cheese. On one end are those blue boxes containing a handful of elbow noodles and an accompanying “cheese” packet. The resulting dish is neon-orange, and of dubious nutritional value. On the opposite end of the spectrum there’s pasta with an unctuous cream sauce and pockets of oozing melted cheese under a burnished top. Think four cheeses melted together with bacon, chili flakes, and caramelized onions. Or how about mozzarella and ricotta with chunks of fresh tomato?

So, what do we do when we want the cozy, comforting dish of mac and cheese while on the trail? When we want the simplest of dinners, but we want it to have ingredients we recognize? When we want that delicious, cozy treat, but we don’t want to pack a ton of items to make it? We make it ahead of time and carry it along, of course!

Below, you’ll find my recipe for a version of macaroni and cheese that falls somewhere between the two extremes of the spectrum, closer to the ease of blue-box side. It’s a cinch to assemble and pack for the trail, and it’s quick to cook once you’re out there. It also makes a great base for improvisation. See my suggestions below the recipe for ways to jazz up your mac.

Make-Ahead Macaroni & Cheese

The most complicated part of this dish is assembling your ingredients to begin with. To make the cheese sauce, you’ll need to have powdered whole milk (powdered skim milk just doesn’t make it creamy enough), and real Vermont cheddar cheese powder. For an optional dose of flavor, order some powdered butter for your make-ahead pantry while you’re at it.

Vermont cheddar cheese is white, so don’t expect the neon-orange color you may be used to. If you think you’ll miss it, add a couple dashes of turmeric to the cheese sauce mixture—but bear in mind, you’ll taste its slightly bitter undertones.

This recipe makes a batch of mac n’ cheese large enough for two people, or one really ravenous person. Double, triple, or quadruple the recipe as needed for more folks or hungrier hikers.

Macaroni ingredients

1 cup elbow noodles

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cheese sauce ingredients:

6-7 Tablespoons Vermont cheese powder (six for mildly cheesy, seven for super cheesy)

6 Tablespoons non-instant powdered whole milk

1/2 teaspoon onion powder or onion granules

a dash of black pepper (optional)

a sprinkle of chili flakes (optional)

a dash of turmeric, for color (optional)

a tablespoon or so of powdered butter (optional)

Mix the macaroni ingredients into a zippered bag. Mix the cheese sauce ingredients into another. Pack them in a safe spot in your backpack or pannier.


At camp:

Add 2.5 cups of water to a small non-stick pot.  Light your PocketRocket stove and turn it to a low flame, setting the pot of water on the stove to heat. Add the macaroni mix and let it boil, stirring frequently so that the noodles don’t stick.


The PocketRocket burns hot and fast! If you have the heat up too high, the pasta will quickly boil over. Keep an eye on it, stir frequently, and keep the temperature low. Don’t be afraid to remove the pot from the flame for a moment until the rising bubbles relax.  To achieve a manageable temperature, I recommend turning the flame controller from the off position until it’s just vertical. This low temperature will allow you a little more control over what you’re cooking.

Allow the pasta to cook until it’s soft, and most of the water has been absorbed. You should have a very small amount of water left, which will provide some moisture for the cheese mixture. If you find that your pasta is fully cooked but you have loads of excess water left, dump some out, and add water as necessary to make the sauce as creamy as you like.


With your water situation taken care of, empty the cheese sauce packet into the pot, and stir to combine. Keep stirring until the lumps smooth out. If you’re using real butter or ghee, add it now, and mix until it melts. Enjoy!



To jazz up your mac & cheese:

Apple and Bacon: Crisp, sweet apple and smoky bacon pair marvelously well with mac and cheese. Crumble pre-cooked bacon into the pasta, and stir in some freshly diced apple.

Veggie: To your cheese packet, add a couple tablespoons or so of quick-cooking dehydrated peas or other green veggies. Or, if you can rustle up some fresh spinach, peas, or kale, add them towards the end of cooking. 

Ultra-cheesy: If you have the ability, bring along a chunk of parmesan and a hunk of real Vermont cheddar cheese. Grate or slice these into pasta, and stir until they’re melted.

Kid-Style: Slice a couple of hot dogs into your pot of mac n’ cheese!


Tara Alan is an Avid cyclist, adventurer, camp cook, and Writer of Bike Camp Cook and of the award winning website

For more of Tara’s recipes click here.