Folks, making homemade macaroni and cheese is a pain in the ass. It takes forever and there are a million steps involved and you have to have flour and you have to shred cheese and even if you don't have to know annoying French words like roux and béchamel, ugh, you still have to make the things they describe and the whole thing sucks and is, objectively speaking, 1.8 times worse than passing a kidney stone.
This is especially true in light of the fact that boxed macaroni and cheese, despite tasting precisely nothing like actual cheese and containing all the nutritional virtue of a tire fire, is friggin' tasty. You can see the dilemma. Sure, it's the color of a traffic cone; sure, it's flavored by a suspicious packet of Mystery Taste Sand (or, even more distressingly, Mystery Taste Magma); sure, you can't eat it in the presence of adults without someone asking who helped you tie your shoelaces—but dammit, it tastes good. Good enough to clear the low bar of your distaste for spending all goddamn evening making the real stuff, anyway.
Why would anyone even bother making the real thing? The answer: Because the real thing, when done well, justifies all the horrors of mankind a thousand times over, except for Dane Cook. Sadly, there's no magic secret to making quick and tasty homemade macaroni and actual cheese. But if you make 740 pounds of the stuff, hell, you only need to do it once.
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For starters, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Is that starting to seem familiar? That's because "Preheat your oven to 350 degrees" is the official first step of cold-weather cooking. (In the summer, it's "make a charcoal fire in your shitty little kettle grill." In places like South Florida and Southern California, where the weather is warm year-round, all cooking procedures begin with some obligatory smarming about the unceasingly pleasant weather, as if it were something the people in those places had the good sense to invent, rather than a meager consolation prize for the fauna who have to share those areas with the most annoying people on earth.)
Now, put an enormous pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Use the biggest pot you have, unless the biggest pot you have is some sad little half-quart thing that looks like a hobo fashioned it by stabbing his fork into the side of a 28-ounce can of franks-and-beans, in which case I advise that you go down to your local big-box store, purchase the largest pot you can balance across the handlebars of your tricycle, bring it home, and fill it with salted water. When the water comes to a boil, add three pounds of elbow macaroni.
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(At some point during the steps that follow, your macaroni will be cooked. Exactly when that will happen depends on how you manage the heat below and how quickly you work. Whenever it happens, strain the macaroni, cover them so they don't dry out, and set them aside.)
While your elbow macaroni are cooking, melt a cup or so of butter (that's two sticks, or one eight-ounce package of fancy Irish butter) in another large pot. Ordinarily, if you were making reasonable quantities of macaroni and cheese, you'd do this in a stainless steel sauté pan, but because we are making a horrifying mad-scientist quantity today, you'll need something larger. One note: Because you'll be doing a lot of whisking here, and because whisking must be done with either a wire whisk or a fork, and because whisking with a metal utensil on a nonstick surface will cause all sorts of frightening space chemicals to leap free of the nonstick surface, blend into your food, and cause you to grow a second head, but, like, inside your regular head and all inside-out and grody, and because nobody wants that, you should avoid using a nonstick pot for this procedure.
Once the butter's all melted and hot, turn the heat down a bit to avoid burning the butter, and then whisk in a cup or so of flour. If you have slick-ass pan searing flour or Wondra flour or whatever, that's great, but regular old all-purpose flour works just fine, too; in either case, whisk and whisk and whisk until you have a consistent, smooth, lump-free paste of butter and flour that you must remind yourself is scalding hot so that you will not scoop it up in your hands and eat it out of your palms like you so badly want to do. This is a roux: flour, mixed with liquid fat, used to thicken things. If, like mine, your indignant tongue curls itself up and attempts to choke you to death whenever you use French cooking terminology, you may call it wheat paste or panada or friggin' floury butter. Personally, I call it incomplete cheese sauce.
Now, turn the heat back up some, and, working very slowly, whisk one quart each of milk and heavy cream into your incomplete cheese sauce. (What you're making now, as an intermediary stage of macaroni and cheese, is essentially béchamel sauce, which is a traditional white sauce made of milk thickened with a roux—however, you're using a great deal more milk than would typically be added to this much roux, because it will be thickened additionally by the obscene, unhinged amount of cheese you will soon be dumping into it. Also you're adding a bunch of heavy cream where béchamel typically includes none, because a guy who writes a food column friggin' said so.) The way to do this is, again, very slowly: glug-glug-glug of milk, then whisk vigorously until the milk and roux are thoroughly blended and lump-free, then another glug-glug-glug of milk. Do the milk first, then the cream.
Keep at it, whisking and whisking and whisking. It might seem at a certain point as though the thick floury roux has vanished altogether and that the sauce could not possibly thicken, but that only means you added too much milk or cream at once; keep whisking, and eventually it will thicken to a gluey, saucy consistency. When that happens, and all the milk and cream have been thoroughly mixed into it, remove the sauce from the heat altogether and allow it to cool for a minute or two.
Now comes the terrible, evil, wonderful part. Working one fistful at a time, and stirring all the while, add every last fucking microgram of shredded or cubed or brutally hacked-up cheese there ever goddamn was to your sauce. You'll need at least three pounds (three fucking pounds!) of cheese, here. The last time I made this, I used 2.5 pounds of extra-sharp cheddar, a pound of chopped-up brie (shut up), half a tub of crumbled gorgonzola, and three slices of rubbery day-glo-orange American processed cheese food (for smoothness, and also because there was something hilariously nonsensical and satisfyingly gluttonous about adding three slices of that inorganic space foam to something that also included brie and gorgonzola, like eating beluga caviar on a Dorito). But, really. Any cheese, as long as you use lots and lots of it. The very most fun part of making macaroni and cheese is when you skip merrily through the cheese section of your supermarket and grab just a bunch of different cheeses that catch your eye: Pecorino and cheddar and Velveeta? Yes! Colby jack and Garrotxa and Port Salut? Fuck yeah! Twelve jars of Old El Paso Queso Dip? My legal counsel has advised me not to appear to endorse this course of action.
If you're going to shred your own cheese—and that's the best way to go, if you can—oh man I really should have put this step more toward the beginning of this thing, huh? (Tip: The cheese will be easier to work with if you pop it into the freezer an hour or so before shredding it.) If you're not—if you're buying pre-shredded cheese in a bag—that's OK too. Your mac and cheese won't have quite as much flavor as it would if you bought and then shredded blocks or wedges or hulking dreadnoughts of cheese, but it'll still be fine. The important thing is to work one fistful at a time, dumping the cheese into the pot and stirring until it's melted and blended smoothly into the sauce.
Naturally the sauce will be cooling down as you go. If it gets too cool to continue melting the cheese (that is: if, when you dunk your hand into the sauce to lift a great dripping scoop of it to your mouth and suck noisily at it like a parched desert wanderer at the burbling mouth of a vanishing stream, the sauce is not hot enough to at least prompt you to do it quickly), return the pot to the stovetop over low-medium heat just until it has gotten hot enough to melt fistfuls of cheese in a reasonable timeframe. This is important: If the sauce gets too hot, the cheese will separate into milk solids and rendered fat and you will wind up with greasy, grainy, thoroughly unappetizing cheese sauce, and you will shake your fists at the sky even though down in the pit of your gut you will know that you have done this to yourself and may not be forgiven.
So you've stirred in all those endless fistfuls of horrible, awful, wonderful cheese. What was once butter and then roux and then béchamel is now a creamy, glorious, utterly indecent cheese sauce. Stir in a few tablespoons of spicy brown or dijon mustard and maybe a splash or two of Worcestershire sauce. It is time to assemble macaroni and cheese.
Assemble macaroni and cheese! Dump the cooked macaroni and cheese sauce into the same vessel (or dump the macaroni into the pot with the cheese sauce, if there's enough room), and stir and stir and stir until they're evenly mixed together. Oh, dear God, would you fucking look at that? The macaroni are goddamn swimming in cheese sauce; if you could climb into the pot and bathe in its contents without befouling them with your vulgar mortal body, you would never climb back out again. Alas, you mustn't climb into your macaroni and cheese. You do not go into the macaroni and cheese. The macaroni and cheese goes into you.
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Putting that macaroni and cheese into yourself, like making it in the first place, is a multi-stage process. To begin with, you absolutely must scoop a bunch of it into a bowl right out of the pot, squirt some sriracha on top of it, and go straight to town. But, you ask, why did I preheat my oven to 350 degrees if I was just gonna eat this stuff straight out of the pot?
Good question. Next, you're going to dump the remaining nine tons of macaroni and cheese into an enormous casserole dish, top it with a layer of shredded cheese, top the shredded cheese with a layer of Japanese breadcrumbs, and bake it for a half-hour or so. This firms the macaroni and cheese up a bit, which makes it less messy to serve so that it can be eaten as a plausible side dish in a potluck-type dinner without making a wreck of the plate. It also makes the macaroni and cheese easier to store. And, most importantly, it puts a layer of crunchy breading on top of it, just as an added affront to purely physiological notions of well-being.
Now you've eaten your macaroni and cheese out of the pot, and you've also baked nine tons of it and eaten it that way. You still likely have more than enough macaroni and cheese left over to fashion an entire life-sized statue of yourself (which you will not do with your mac and cheese; or at least, that's not the last thing you're going to do with it). Divide it into portions, stick the portions in freezer-safe containers, and stick the freezer-safe containers in the freezer. And there they will sit, piled gleamingly on top of one another, like bullion at Fort Knox, for the next several months. Or, more realistically, the next several hours.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image by Jim Cooke.