Classic chili mac, made from scratch, with plenty of cheese and spiced beef crumbles, is ready in about 30 minutes! It’s a big dish of pure comfort food!
Don’t you just love a big bowl of comfort food? This chili Mac bake is perfect for any occasion, is made from scratch, and tastes similar to hamburger helper! Except this version is baked in a casserole with extra gooey cheese!
As Fall is looming on the horizon, I’ve already been thinking about great comfort food meals. It’s definitely my favorite season for many reasons, but the food is high on the list! From chili to slow cooker soups, I crave comfort food pretty much year round! For instance, even in the heat of July, we have this baked Mac and cheese every 6 weeks or so (and my kids would happily eat it weekly!).
Growing up, we didn’t eat Hamburger Helper very often… in fact, I can’t really remember a time my Mom fixed it for dinner. But when I moved out of their house and in with my husband, and could barely boil water, we ate a LOT of it! One of my favorite varieties was the chili Mac. It’s been a while since I’ve had it, but this chili Mac bake tastes similar, except in a family friendly casserole form!
Essentially, this meal is a combination of a spicy Mac and cheese and a salsa ground beef mixture. Like most bakes or casseroles, a lot of the prep work can be done ahead (and you know I’m all about working ahead when you can!).
Easy ways to prep ahead for this chili Mac bake:
- Pre-boil your pasta, drain and toss with a little olive oil (so it doesn’t stick), then keep refrigerated in a resealable bag (just don’t forget to keep the 1/2 cup pasta cooking water in a separate container)
- Make ground beef mixture ahead of time (beef, onion, spices and salsa), drain and keep refrigerated in an airtight container
- Pre-grate cheeses and keep in resealable bags in the refrigerator
If you prep ahead, when it’s time to make this meal, all you have to do is make the cheese sauce and combine things before baking. You can make the cheese sauce while the oven is preheating, and you can have this comforting meal in no-time!
Alternatively, you could also skip the baking step and have this be a stovetop chili mac. For the cheesy topping in that version, sprinkle the cheeses over the top, cover the skillet or dish for a few minutes and it will be gooey!
I love how ultra-creamy this dish is… and I’m such a sucker for the great flavor combination of the cheese with the spicy meat mixture and the classic pasta. Speaking of pasta, you can use any short-cut pasta you’d like… I just like the classic elbow shape, since it fuels the comfort food factor by bringing back childhood Mac and cheese memories!
Incidentally, if you’re worried about your kids not wanting to eat this dish because it’s too spicy, in the recipe notes section below the recipe, I’ve given some tips on how to reduce the spiciness. When I follow these tips, my kids gobble this up and ask for seconds!
Oh and this chili Mac also is PERFECT for leftovers, since it reheats really well! It’s great for taking to lunch at work the next day, but only if you are prepared for people to constantly be asking you what that amazing smell is as you reheat it 😉
As the weather starts to cool down over the next month or so, and the kids go back to school (making weeknight meals a full on stress-zone), keep this hearty comfort food meal in mind. With my prep ahead tips, it can be on the table in less than 30 minutes!
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Homemade Chili Mac Bake
Classic chili mac, made from scratch, with plenty of cheese and spiced beef crumbles, is ready in about 30 minutes. It's a big dish of pure comfort food!
- 1 lb dried elbow pasta
- 1 lb ground beef
- 16 oz picante sauce or salsa (I like to use a medium heat variety - but use your favorite)
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 yellow onion, finely minced
- 2 1/2 Tbsp butter
- 2 1/2 Tbsp all purpose flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided (I like to use a medium cheddar)
- 1 1/2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese, divided (Monterey Jack could be substituted)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp dried oregano
- pinch of kosher salt
- chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 9x13 inch baking dish (or 3 qt baking dish) and set aside.
Boil pasta, according to package directions, in a large pot of water. Be sure to add a generous pinch of kosher salt to the water, as it will flavor the pasta. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water. Lightly drizzle drained pasta with a little olive oil to keep it from sticking and add it to a large mixing bowl.
While pasta is boiling, add ground beef and brown over MED-HIGH heat, breaking up the meat into crumbles, until cooked through, about 4-5 minutes. Add onion and chili powder to the ground beef and cook another 2-3 minutes. Depending on how much fat is rendered from the beef, you may need to drain it at this point.
Add salsa to ground beef skillet and stir to combine. Add to the cooked pasta in the mixing bowl.
Add butter to a medium saucepan and cook over MED heat. When butter is melted, add flour and whisk to combine. Cook 30 seconds, then slowly whisk in the milk, a little at a time, whisking as you add it. Cook until thickened, then stir in 2 cups of the cheddar cheese and 1 cup of the pepper jack cheese. Stir in black pepper, kosher salt and oregano.
Pour cheese sauce into the large mixing bowl with the meat mixture and pasta. Stir to combine. If mixture seems too thick, add a little bit of the reserved pasta water. Add in 1/4 cup each of the cheddar and pepper jack and stir to combine.
Transfer pasta to the prepared baking dish, top with remaining cheeses (1/4 cup each of cheddar and pepper jack). Bake for 12-15 minutes, until cheese is melted and bubbly.
Serve hot, garnished with fresh parsley or cilantro.
To reduce spiciness, use mild picante sauce and use Monterey Jack cheese.
To add spiciness, use medium or hot picante sauce, use pepper jack cheese, and add a can of drained diced green chiles to the onions and beef mixture.