How to Make Gourmet Anything
How to Make Anything Taste Gourmet (Yes, Even Frozen Burritos and Boxed Mac & Cheese)
05.29.20

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Robert Pattinson recently made headlines when he pulled on a pair of latex gloves and attempted to microwave together penne noodles, sugar, cheese, cornflakes, and aluminum foil. It was an exercise in reinvention, in disruption, in expeditious gastronomy.

His microwave basically exploded.

The good news: There are other ways to make something taste good fast. I am speaking, of course, about prepared foods, frozen, or dehydrated dishes that come in boxes adorned with an encouraging photo of the completed dish, enlarged for your pleasure. These foods wait patiently until you realize you simply can’t spend another two hours roasting quarantine chicken without absolutely losing it, for real this time.
When that moment comes, grab that boxed cake mix (or frozen ravioli, or mac ‘n’ cheese) and consult this guide.

1. Frozen Pizza Alla Your Pajamas

Frozen pizza often has a soggy-bottom problem, which is a criticism I hope no one ever writes about me. Fortunately for frozen pizza, its bottom can be unsogged using a hot cast iron skillet. You’ll need to go a little rogue, since most packages instruct you to use a baking sheet or to place the pizza directly on your oven grates.

Speaking of going rogue, it’s time we talk about the frico. A frico is a freeform round of grated cheese fried in a thin layer until crispy, like a salty-chewy-cheesy chip. (Also: my safe word.) Both pizza preparations below invite an oversized frico to town, in the form of some well-placed cheese between the pizza and the skillet.

The Frozen Pizza Facelift:
You’ll Need:
-1 frozen personal pizza
-A few slices of packaged salami, prosciutto, or any salty cured meat you’ve beckoned into your home; for the meat-free, swap something fun and briny like sweet-hot peppers
-1 cup grated semi-soft cheese, like Gruyére, Gouda, or low-moisture mozzarella, divided in half
-Spicy honey (like Mike’s, or make your own by combining honey and sliced chiles)

Place a cast iron skillet big enough to hold the pizza inside the oven while it preheats according to the box instructions, which is usually around 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once the oven has preheated, carefully remove the hot skillet. Take about half the grated cheese and arrange in the skillet in a circle slightly smaller than the pizza. Place the frozen pizza right on top of the cheese-circle while whispering, “The Eagle has landed.”

Place the skillet back inside the oven and bake the pizza according to package instructions, usually about 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove pizza from the oven, and turn on the broiler to preheat. While that’s happening, add toppings to pizza, layering on the cured meat first. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top of that, taking time to make sure some corners of meat are sticking out of the cheese. (You deserve crispy bits.)

Place the skillet under the boiler. Keep a close eye on things—you want to broil just until the new cheese layer is gurgling like a happy baby and has browned in places. Remove from the oven. Before serving, drizzle spicy honey across the top.

The Frozen Pizza Full Reno:
You’ll Need:
-1 frozen personal pizza
-A couple pieces of bacon (pop into the freezer for a few minutes for easier slicing—thank me whenever, I know you have a lot going on)
-¾ cup chopped mushrooms
Truffle salt (optional)
-1 cup grated semi-soft cheese, like Gruyére, Gouda, or low-moisture mozzarella, divided in half
-1 egg

Follow the directions above, up to and including the Eagle landing. Then place the skillet back in the oven, and set a timer for 8ish minutes.

Cut your bacon into bite-sized pieces, and crisp in a skillet over a medium-high flame. Once crisp, use a slotted spoon to set aside the bacon, but leave its fat behind. Add mushrooms and cook in bacon fat until beginning to brown—they’ll cook more in a bit, FYI—then transfer to the bacon plate using a slotted spoon. (If you have truffle salt, now would be the time to break it out and sprinkle a few pinches over the mushroom and bacon.)

Once the timer goes off, check on the pizza. You’re going to pull it from the oven when it’s just beginning to take on some color around the edges, and no longer feels cold to the touch in the center. When it’s go-time, remove it from the oven and add the crisped bacon and browned mushrooms across its top. Sprinkle the rest of the grated cheese on top of that, making a little nest in the center. Here’s where things get wild! Crack an egg into a bowl (shell insurance) and gently transfer it to the nest in the center of the cheese.

Place the skillet back into the oven, and continue to bake another 6 to 8 minutes, until the newly added cheese is bubbly and the whites of the egg have set fully, but the yolk is still runny.

2. Boxed Mac and Cheese to Write Home About (Too Bad You’re Already Home!)

While classic creamy stovetop mac screams, boxed mac whimpers. Like a childhood crush reencountered in adulthood, it’s all “disappointing except if you’re kind of stoned.”

The solution is three-fold: Add elements to amp up the cheese sauce, introduce textural diversity, and lean on nostalgia. Below, the Facelift calls for a few stir-ins and an optional breadcrumb layer for something like a deconstructed casserole, and the Full Reno invites you to make like Marcella Hazan if she were stuck in a dorm room. (In that it’s an adaptation of one of her classic recipes, but also calls for synthetic cheese.)

The Boxed Mac Facelift:
You’ll Need:
-1 box of macaroni and cheese including its flavor packet
-¾ cup frozen peas
-3 tablespoons of butter softened to room temp
-¼ cup milk (or cream!!! I’m crazy)
-⅓ cup grated Gouda, cheddar, or other melty cheese
-Salt and pepper

For optional topping:
-¾ cup breadcrumbs (anything goes; panko is king, but whatever you’ve got works, including old, stale bread you’ve crushed in a Ziploc with a rolling pin)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-Salt and cayenne pepper or zaatar to taste

Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil. Don’t skip the salt!

Add noodles, and cook a couple minutes before tasting one. These tiny babies turn to mush quickly, and you’re going to finish them over heat, so aim for a hair undercooked. You should be able to easily bite through one but with slight resistance. At that point, set aside about a half-cup of the cooking water, add frozen peas to the remaining water and noodles, and cut the heat.

Drain and return the noodles and peas to the pot, over a low flame. Add butter, milk, grated cheese, and the packet of powdered cheese that came in the box. Stir until butter and cheese melt and sauce comes together to coat the noodles, adding splashes of reserved pasta water to thin things out if needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Eat as is, or, if you’re feeling really Ina-when-Jeffrey’s-about-to-be-home, grab a skillet and place it over a medium-low flame. Add breadcrumbs, olive oil, and a few pinches of salt and your Chosen Seasonings. Toast the breadcrumbs, moving them around with a wooden spoon, until fragrant and golden. Top the mac and cheese with breadcrumbs before serving.

The Boxed Mac Full Reno:
You’ll Need:
-1 box of macaroni and cheese including its flavor packet
-2 tablespoons chopped parsley
-Half a clove of garlic, finely minced
-⅓ cup Microplaned or freshly grated Parmesan (or any hard, salty Italian cheese); don’t use pre-grated, it’ll get clumpy
-1 egg, lightly beaten
-2 tablespoons butter softened to room temp.
-¼ cup heavy cream
-1 can oil-packed tuna, drained

Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. (Again: Don’t skip on the salt!)

Add noodles, and cook until just tender. Most boxes recommend 7 to 8 minutes, but start checking closer to the 5-minute mark. (You won’t be finishing these ones over heat, but they’ll continue to cook a bit as you drain them.)

Meanwhile, mix together the rest of the ingredients in a bowl: chopped parsley, finely minced garlic, the cheesy flavor packet (cover your eyes, Italians), Parmesan, egg, softened butter, heavy cream, and oil-packed tuna (break into flakes as you mix). Drain the noodles when ready—don’t rinse; never rinse!—and add them to the mixture. Toss together until saucy and emulsified.

How to Make Gourmet Anything

3. An Icy Bean Burrito to Keep You Warm at Night

I love everything about a frozen bean burrito in theory (convenience, burritos, beans…) but in practice, flash-defrosted rice and beans often come out of the microwave gloopy as an ASMR slime video. To combat that, I offer a number of edible accessories intended to provide some heterogeneity of both texture and flavor—a.k.a. pickled stuff, cheesy stuff, and spicy stuff.

The Frozen Burrito Facelift:
You’ll Need:
-2 tablespoons sour cream or Greek yogurt
-A couple shakes of hot sauce, such as Cholula or El Yucateco
-1 frozen bean burrito
-½ cup grated cheese, like Queso Oaxaca,Monterey Jack, or cheddar
-½ avocado, thinly sliced
-1 lime wedge

Combine sour cream and hot sauce, adding more of the latter to taste. Set aside.

Unwrap frozen burrito, and place on plate. Microwave for half the total time the package recommends. (For example, if the package says 1 minute on each side, microwave for 1 minute only at this stage.)

Flip the burrito over, and sprinkle cheese on top. Place back in the microwave, and heat for remaining time, according to the package. The cheese should be fully melted and bubbly—if this isn’t the case, put it back in the microwave for another 30 seconds.

Arrange sliced avocado on top of burrito, squeeze lime wedge over that, and dollop on the spicy sour cream. Go to town.

The Frozen Burrito Full Reno
You’ll Need:
-¼ cup apple cider vinegar
-Juice of ½ lime, plus more to taste
-½ cup hot water (not boiling, but like bath-temp if you stick your finger in)
-2 teaspoons sugar
-1 large pinch salt
-½ large shallot, thinly sliced
-2 tablespoons sour cream or Greek yogurt
-A couple shakes of hot sauce, such as Cholula or El Yucateco
-1 frozen bean burrito
-½ avocado, thinly sliced

About 45 minutes before you’re ready to eat, quick-pickle the shallot. In a medium-sized bowl, combine apple cider vinegar, lime juice, hot water, sugar, and salt. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Add the thinly sliced shallots and let sit. (Note: You can do this pretty far in advance—it’ll keep covered in the fridge for a couple weeks, while you work your way through every season of Grey’s until you’ve finally built up the will to buy a frozen burrito.)

Combine sour cream and hot sauce, adding more of the latter to taste. Set aside.

Set a cast iron skillet over a medium-high flame (no oil) to heat for 2 minutes or so. Meanwhile, unwrap frozen burrito, and place on plate. Microwave according to package instructions. Transfer microwaved burrito to hot skillet, and sear on each side until browned.

Remove from heat and serve with spicy sour cream, drained pickled shallots, and sliced avocado.

4. Pre-made Stuffed Pasta That’s Just: *Chef’s Kiss*

If you’re anything like my boyfriend Nate, you love stuffed pasta, but hate to order it in restaurants because you suspect an international conspiracy resulting in far too few tortellini or ravioli per order—so frozen stuffed pasta in the home has some real sex appeal. However, if you’re not careful, you can end up with a bunch of bland, overcooked, gummy has-been tortellini—which if you’re further like Nate, might make you upset enough to develop a few more conspiracy theories.

Instead, I would recommend paying close attention to cook time, salting your water well, and saucing thoughtfully, as in the Facelift technique (adapted from Bon Appétit) and the Full Reno (sauce adapted from Dan Pelosi). Both treatments work just as well with fresh prepared stuffed pasta as they do frozen, and if you’re having Nate over for dinner, please, god, serve him as much as he wants.

The Pre-made Pasta Facelift:
You’ll Need:
-As much frozen cheese-filled tortellini or ravioli as you desire
-About 4 tablespoons unsalted butter per half-pound of stuffed pasta, cut into even pieces
-¼ cup well-chopped or otherwise small nuts, like pine nuts (who are you, Rockefeller?) or cashews or walnuts, per half-pound of stuffed pasta
-A handful of sage leaves
-Freshly cracked black pepper and salt
-Parmesan, freshly grated or in those fancy little sheets

Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil. Please remember: Do not skip the salt!

Meanwhile, in a skillet big enough to hold all of your eventual pasta spoils, melt butter over a medium-low flame, stirring every so often to ensure it’s cooking evenly. Once it starts to get foamy, add the nuts. Continue to cook, stirring, until the foam subsides and your butter begins to take on a toasty tone, and it smells so good you want to bathe in it. Adjust the heat to low, and add a few big pinches of freshly cracked black pepper and the sage. Cook until the sage darkens and curls into crisps, then remove from heat.

By now, the water should be at a boil. Add the frozen pasta. The package will suggest you wait something like 7 minutes before checking on it, but that’s madness. Start checking for doneness a couple minutes after you add it to boiling water; it’s ready for business once the filling is no longer cold.

At that point, use a slotted spoon to transfer directly to your brown butter and sage sauce—don’t worry if you end up transferring a little pasta water, too. Add a few pinches of salt. Toss together with a wooden spoon until the sauce is hugging the pasta as tightly as you wish you were being hugged RN. Taste and adjust seasoning. Top each bowl with Parm to serve.

The Pre-made Pasta Full Reno:
You’ll Need:
-As much frozen tortellini or ravioli as you desire
-4 tablespoons butter per pound of frozen pasta
-5 tablespoons tomato paste per pound of frozen pasta
-4 tablespoons vodka per pound of frozen pasta
-⅓ cup heavy cream per pound of frozen pasta
-Salt and pepper
-Parmesan, freshly grated or in those fancy little sheets

Bring a pot of well salted water to a boil. Don’t forget that salt!

Meanwhile, in a skillet big enough to hold all of your eventual pasta spoils, melt butter over a medium-low flame. Add the tomato paste, and whisk into butter until fully combined. Continue to cook several minutes until fragrant and darkened, then add the vodka and cream. Whisk to combine. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes, until any harsh alcohol flavor has cooked off. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

By now, water should be at a boil. Add the frozen pasta. Look to see if it’s done a couple of minutes after adding it to the boiling water—you’re good to go when the filling is longer cold.

Transfer tortellini or ravioli over to sauce with heat on low—the benefit of doing it this way is you’ll take some of the salted cooking water with you, which will help the sauce bind to the pasta. Add another splash of cooking water if needed to thin out sauce. Stir until well coated over a low flame, cut the heat, and season to taste. Serve topped with Parm.

5. Cake for a Quar Wedding to Yourself

The name of the boxed cake game—if it’s not a game, what am I even doing here?—is making just enough tweaks to ease it away from chemically, one-note territory, without going to so much trouble that you may as well have just made a cake. Accordingly, the Facelift below (inspired by the best olive oil cake in the world) swaps in more flavorful ingredients than those called for by the box, with limited fuss. The Full Reno, meanwhile, brings to the table a salted chocolate buttercream with just four ingredients (adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction) that takes less time than a shower.

The Boxed Cake Facelift
You’ll Need:
-1 box classic yellow cake mix
-1 medium to large orange, such as a Navel
-Salt
-3 large eggs*
-⅓ cup olive oil, or more as needed*
-¾ cup milk, or more as needed*

*These instructions are for a cake mix that calls for 1 cup water, 3 large eggs, and ⅓ cup vegetable oil. You’ll be swapping in olive oil for all of the vegetable oil, replacing three-quarters of the water with milk, and replacing the remaining quarter cup of water with fresh orange juice. If your cake mix calls for a different amount of water, adjust the swaps accordingly: For example, if the box calls for 2 cups of water, swap in 1½ cups milk and ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice. Don’t stress too much if it works out to weird proportions, just aim to replace the total amount of water called for with the same amount of liquid (mostly milk + some orange juice).

Preheat oven according to temperature called for by the box, usually between 325 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the pan (or pans) you’ll be using to bake your cake.

Use a Microplane or the fine side of a box grater to zest the orange, then squeeze its juice through a strainer into a small bowl (to get rid of any pulp or seeds).

Add cake mix to a large bowl, along with ½ teaspoon orange zest and a big pinch of salt. Whisk or beat in ¼ cup orange juice, 3 eggs, ⅓ cup olive oil, and ¾ cup milk, until just combined—over-mixing will lead to a tough cake.

Transfer batter to prepared pan(s) and bake according to package instructions, though starting to check for doneness a few minutes before the box recommends. How to tell if a cake is fully baked? The top will be golden all the way across, its center will no longer quiver like a jilted lover, and a tester inserted right into the middle (toothpick, skewer, sharp knife) will come out clean.

Run a knife around the edge of the pan(s) and let the cake cool at least 15 minutes before transferring to a serving dish or your mouth directly. If you’re of the garnish persuasion, you could always run a little powdered sugar through a strainer over the top.

The Boxed Cake Full Reno
You’ll Need*:
-Everything from above, plus…
-1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened to room temp
– 1½ cup confectioners’ sugar
-⅓ cup cocoa powder (use Dutch process if you can find it)
-¼ teaspoon espresso powder (optional)
-¼ cup milk or cream, plus a little more if needed

*If you’ve made two or three thinner cakes from the boxed mix with the intention of constructing a layer cake, you’ll want to double this frosting recipe.

Let the cake cool to room temp. Meanwhile, make frosting. Beat butter for a couple of minutes until fluffy and light, stopping as needed to scrape down sides of bowl with a spatula and the vim of a Medieval art conservator.

Add confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder if using, a big pinch of salt, and ¼ cup milk or cream. Beat on low at first, otherwise the cocoa powder will go everywhere. Then once it’s mostly incorporated, beat on high until fluffy and spreadable. (Add a little more milk or cream as needed if you like a thinner texture.) Taste and adjust salt level—aim for chocolate-covered pretzel vibes.

Frost cake immediately, or store frosting in fridge and bring back to room temp before using.

Feature Images via Beth Sacca, Alistair Matthews. 

 

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