Homemade mac & cheese as easy as the boxed stuff

I’ve been fighting something off-and-on for about a month now, that thing that on some days I swear is West Nile Virus and others I think is a weird sleeping sickness – it’s like the flu in every way except (thankfully!) I’m not puking.  Whatever it actually is, it turned itself on again yesterday and is still eating away at my senses today.  So glad I have a lot of “throat tea” and “breathing tea!”  And homemade mac & cheese in the freezer!  Gentle foods & bevs are your friend.

a warm, starchy, cheesy pot of yum

a warm, starchy, cheesy pot of yum

Just how did I get that freezer-full of delicious homemade macaroni & cheese?  This happened two weeks ago, true story.  My best friend came by to bring a box of tea she swore would help my aching throat (Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat, truly it kicks ass).

She poked her head in the door, and the following conversation began:

Her:  “Oh my word, what is that smell?  Now I’m starving now and I want to eat whatever that smell is.”

Me:  “Oh, it’s not much, just–“

Her:  Gasps. Macaroni and cheese!  Homemade macaroni and cheese!  How on earth did you manage, I thought you were sick?”

Me:  “Yeah, well–“

Her:  “You’re doing that thing again, aren’t you?  Where you say, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal,’ when what you really mean is that it took you all afternoon and every bit of energy you’ve got and now you’ve gone and exhausted yourself but you don’t want to say anything.  What were you thinking?”

Me:  “Umm, wait–“

Her:  “Get back in bed!  Now!  Go!  You don’t want to make yourself worse!”  Scoffs.  “Homemade macaroni and cheese!  Yeah, right.  Whatever.  Making herself sick in this hot kitchen all afternoon… wait, why isn’t the kitchen hot?”

And thus went the conversation. Or at least it went that way in my head.  In real life she only stuck only her arm through the barely opened door shoving a box of tea bags at me, retreating quickly and closing the door just after saying “bye” so she didn’t catch any of my germs.

Macaroni and cheese is one of my biggest comfort foods, and it’s one of the few things I can almost always eat, no matter what’s going on with my innards.  The box kind is super quick and easy but is kind of its own food — like you would crave the box kind OR real mac & cheese, but neither could be substituted for the other to scratch that gastronomic itch.  But real mac & cheese takes effort and time and makes the kitchen gawdawful hot, especially in the summer, and especially if you’re overly sensitive to heat, and especially when you already feel bad.

But what if I told you that you could make mac & cheese from scratch that was so easy you could do it while you felt about as good an armadillo on the side of the highway in July?  Wanna know my not-so-secret secret recipe?  Here ’tis, evolving from a few recipes I found online, tweaking it to my taste.   You’ll find a lot of recipes for macaroni & cheese in a crock pot because there are a lot of ways of doing it.  This way you don’t have to pre-cook the noodles.  It’s a one-pot wonder of starchy, cheesy goodness.

so good you can smell it through your screen

so good you can smell it through your screen

Look at this as a base recipe to which you add your favorite cheeses and seasonings.

Easy-Peasy Crock Pot Macaroni and Cheese

Stuff you need:

  • cooking spray
  • 5 cups milk
  • 1 egg
  • salt & pepper
  • Italian seasoning or whatever sounds good to you
  • 1/3 cup (ish) carmelized onions *
  • 16oz elbow macaroni, uncooked
  • 4 cups shredded cheese **
  • 1 can tomatoes, whole or crushed

How you do it:

  1. Spray crock with cooking spray.
  2. Pour in all the milk.
  3. Wisk egg into the milk.
  4. Add salt, pepper, and other seasonings, however much of whatever sounds good.
  5. Dump in the onions and stir.
  6. Dump in the bag of macaroni and stir.
  7. Dump in cheese and, you guessed it, stir.
  8. Put a lid on it, turn it on high, and set a timer for 1 hour.
  9. While it’s cooking, drain all the liquid out of the canned tomatoes.  If you have just whole canned tomatoes in your larder, chop them up before draining.  Press out all the liquid or else your mac & cheese will take on a pink hue (trust me).  Fresh tomatoes will do in a pinch but know that they add a different texture.
  10. Now go lay down on the couch and put on a movie.
  11. After an hour your & your timer dings, go stir the mixture gently from the bottom, stuff in there will be stuck together, this is totally normal, you didn’t ruin it.
  12. Lid it again and set the timer for 1 hour.  Go back to the couch and un-pause your movie, it was just getting really good anyway.
  13. After the second hour of cooking, dump those drained tomatoes into the mixture.  Stir it gently from the bottom as instructed above.
  14. Lid it again and go back to the couch and find a tv show to watch.
  15. Cook for another 30 minutes or an hour, or until bubbly and cooked throughout but not mushy.
  16. After the last bit of cooking, turn off the crock pot and stir from the bottom one more time to mix the tasty crusty bits from the bottom into the rest.

Next:

Scoop out some into a bowl, grab a small spoon, and go back to the couch to enjoy the yumminess that is homemade mac & cheese.  When your mother calls to check on you you can tell her honestly that yes, you are eating and no, no one delivered it.

Later:

After you’ve eaten but while it’s still warm, parcel out the rest in individual portions in containers or small baggies and refrigerate or freeze.  See, you wanna portion it out while it’s warm.  If you just stick the crock in the fridge before you go to bed then the next day for lunch you’ll have to cut a slice out with a knife and drop it onto a plate like it’s cake, and that’s just weird.  I like to fill the bags, seal them, smooch them down, and freeze them flat; they take up less room in the freezer this way.

Total cooking time:  about 2-1/2 to 3 hours

Total time slaving over it:  about 15 minutes

Pots used:  1

baggies of mac & cheese all lined up ready to chill

baggies of mac & cheese all lined up ready to chill

* A note about the caramelized onions:  You have a slow cooker or else you wouldn’t be making this recipe.  Early one afternoon use it to cook down a whole lot of onions until they are caramelized, let them cool, use a scoop to parcel out small, measured portions, and freeze; once frozen drop the onion-blobs into a baggie or container & keep in the freezer.  If you freeze it in little bits you can pull out only what you’ll need, and those portions will thaw quickly.

** A note about the cheese:  This will probably make this dish, which already is cooked in a crock pot, sound even more low-rent but I swear you’ll want to do this.  Of the 4 cups of cheese required, I recommend 1 of them be American cheese, or failing that, about 3/4 cup of it be Velveeta (I have not tried that).  Why would I trash up mac & cheese with processed “cheese?”  Because I’ve found that doing so keeps the oils in the cheese from separating so much so that when you reheat a bowl later you don’t see little globules of oil floating on the top of your food.  Processed cheese doesn’t eliminate those oils from the other 3 cups of Cheddar or whatever, but it helps keep those oils mixed in better with the cheeses they came from.

** Another note about the cheese:  I buy the large bag of shredded sharp Cheddar cheese and keep it in the freezer.  If you shake it up a few times while it’s freezing it won’t clump together very much and you can pull out only what you need at a time.  Hey, life’s hard enough as it is, you do what you can to make it easier.  Grating cheese is not one of those things I wish to allocate much time to if I can reserve that energy for something else.

Enjoy!

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