Kids-Love-It Beefy Chili Mac (And So Do Adults)

Macaroni and ground beef combine with cheese and smoky spices for a one-pot comfort meal.
Macaroni and ground beef combine with cheese and smoky spices for a one-pot comfort meal.

When I was in middle school, my best friend and I would cook dinner together whenever our parents were out spending time with relatives.

Our meal of choice?

Hamburger Helper Chili Macaroni.

We’d tie on aprons and flourish wooden spoons like microphones, pretending we were on our own TV cooking show as we sizzled the hamburger meat, stirred in water, pasta, and the seasoning packet, all the while providing our own commentary along the way.

At the end, like any self-respecting Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray, we dug our spoons in, savored a bite, and flashed the imaginary camera a big contented grin, before bursting into laughter at our hamminess.

Truth be told, that’s probably the last time a box of Hamburger Helper found its way into my kitchen.

But “Kids-Love-It Beefy Chili Mac” had me not only reminiscing about those fond childhood memories, but craving this comforting dish all over again.

The recipe is from the best-selling “Once Upon a Chef: Weeknight/Weekend” (Clarkson Potter), of which I received a review copy. It’s by Maryland-based Jennifer Segal, a classically trained chef and founder of the blog, Once Upon A Chef.

The book features 70 recipes that Segal regularly makes for her own family. Because she worked on the book during the pandemic, the recipes are especially soothing and satiating, and designed to entice everyone around the table for a much needed helping of care and contentment.

At times like this, who can ever resist such creations as “Ginger Pork Sliders,” “Sheet Pan Chicken & Pancetta Meatballs,” “Five-Star Beef Stew with Carrots and Potatoes,” and “Brownie Pudding”?

The majority of the recipes are quick weeknight ones, while the remainder take a little more time on the weekends. Hence, the title of the book.

I might not have any kiddos in my household, but I can attest that “Kids-Love-It-Beefy Chili Mac” is a dish that adults will immediately fall for, as well.

It’s a one-pot meal that comes together faster and easier than you expect. It’s also much heartier than you’d think, given that it uses only half a pound of elbow macaroni. But the 1-pound of ground beef plus the evaporated milk make this dish substantially meaty and creamy tasting. In fact, even if the recipe says it serves 4, it might very well serve 5 to 6 easily, especially if you add tortilla chips, grilled bread or a green salad alongside.

The beef gets seasoned with paprika, ancho chile powder, and cumin for a nice smokiness. A dash of cayenne is optional. The dish is not spicy, and even if you add the 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, there will be no noticeable throat tickle. So, if you desire more heat, dial up the cayenne. I suggested that in the recipe below.

Sure to warm you up and fill you up on a blustery autumn night.
Sure to warm you up and fill you up on a blustery autumn night.

The elbow macaroni gets added to the pot with chicken stock and tomato sauce, and simmers until al dente. Then, the evaporated milk and grated Mexican cheese blend gets stirred in. At this point, the mixture will look quite loose, almost soupy, and not like the Chili Mac I remembered. However, if you let it sit for about 10 minutes, everything will thicken up nicely, so that the sauce and cheese really cling to everything. I added that recommendation to the recipe below, as well.

My husband dug in with gusto, and likened it to a cross between mac ‘n’ cheese and beef stroganoff.

For me, it was a pure blast from the past made even better than I remember.

Kids-Love-It Beefy Chili Mac

(Serves 4)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste (optional)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 pound (85 percent or 90 percent lean) ground beef

3 cups chicken broth

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon sugar

8 ounces (about 2 cups) elbow macaroni

1 cup evaporated milk

1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend, plus more for serving

3 scallions (dark green parts only), thinly sliced

Tortilla chips, for serving

Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, chile powder, cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne (if using), and salt, and cook, stirring often, about 1 minute more. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring and breaking it apart, until no longer pink, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir in the broth, tomato sauce, oregano, sugar, and macaroni and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring every so often so the macaroni doesn’t stick to the bottom, until the pasta is al dente, 9 to 12 minutes. Use a soup spoon to skim any grease off the top if necessary.

Off the heat, add the evaporated milk and the cheese and stir until the cheese is melted. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Let sit, covered, for 10 minutes to allow the chili mac to thicken. Ladle the chili mac into bowls, and sprinkle with the scallions. Serve with more shredded cheese and tortilla chips.

Adapted from “Once Upon A Chef: Weeknight/Weekend” by Jennifer Segal

More Recipes with Macaroni: Kimchi Mac and Cheese

And: Campanile Tuna Noodle Casserole

And: Macaroni and Cheese

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  • I love chili mac! Definitely brings out the kid in me. πŸ™‚ Haven’t made it in some time — you’re definitely inspiring me. Terrific looking recipe — thanks.

  • Hi John: I know, I haven’t made something like this in ages, either. It sure hit the spot. πŸ˜‰

  • Thinking of doing this with Mexican chorizo instead of ground beef. Sprinkled with cilantro, crema and pickled jalapenos. I know it’s not true to the original, but, why not?

  • Hi Reuel: I LOVE that idea! I think chorizo would be awesome in this dish. You’ll have to let me know how it turns out. Enjoy! πŸ˜‰

  • Did it with fresh chorizo (10 oz.) instead of ground beef. Dropped the salt since the chorizo had plenty. Added 1/4 tsp ground chipotle and all the other seasonings as in the original. Pickled jalapenos, scallions and cilantro for the garnish. Was delicious! All I need now is a good way to use up the rest of the evapo milk?

  • Hi Reuel: I love your riff on the original! The chorizo and pickled jalapenos are inspired additions. As for the leftover evaporated milk, my husband used it in his coffee. It would also be great in smoothies. πŸ˜‰

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