Don’t you love it when two comfort foods knock into each other?
They’re both walking along, being individually delicious, minding their own business, and then suddenly – bam! They collide head on in the ultimate meet cute and become even more perfect as a duo than they ever could have been on their own.
Just like Jack and Rose, Noah and Allie, and Rachel and Ross, certain foods are just better together.
This taco mac and cheese bake proves my ridiculous romantic theory to a T. Think about it: when you break down the components of both tacos and cheesy noodles, there isn’t a single element that doesn’t combine harmoniously on your taste buds.
At its core, macaroni and cheese is a blank canvas, the perfect base that can readily be transformed into anything you want it to be.
I mean, I wouldn’t sprinkle it with strawberries… but as far as savory flavors go, you really can’t take a wrong turn. And while this classic comfort food is dynamite by itself, if you choose to enhance it with notes of smoke and spice, and other tasty ingredients, this is only going to spark it with more life.
Who would say no to that?
Earthy cumin goes hand in hand with smooth, creamy cheese. And I use sour cream (or Greek yogurt, depending on what’s in my fridge) to create a delectable sauce that comes together in a snap.
Though I would typically start with a roux when it comes to a cheese sauce, tangy sour cream, butter, and starchy pasta water help the cheddar and Jack cheeses cling to the noods like there’s no tomorrow.
Which is actually kind of what happened with Jack and Rose. (I knew that Titanic reference would come full circle somehow!)
While you could certainly mingle the beef and macaroni before baking, tossing them together as opposed to stacking them in your oven-proof vessel, I’m a fan of the layered look after the casserole is hot out of the oven and I’m cracking into it.
Also, something about tangling the two together is a little too Hamburger Helper™ for me. (No offense, Betty.)
Sure, if you want to be technical about it, the ingredients will all squish together in the same way in your mouth. But just about everything is being made from scratch here, so let’s step up our game a little bit!
Speaking of which, it’s the vibrant garnishes that truly make this dish pop.
A citrusy, crunchy pico de gallo would be top notch on top, but juicy chopped tomatoes offer the same effect of brightening up the hearty flavors. Briny black olives add another level of dimension, and sour cream cools everything down.
In combination, all of these garnish ingredients remind you that we kicked things off with the word “taco.”
A little hot sauce on the table is also always a good choice.
There may not be any tortillas in sight, but your craving for Mexican flavors will be satisfied while your mac and cheese needs are met simultaneously with every substantial spoonful in this big casserole.
Now, who’s ready for a cerveza, a rom com, and a nap?Print
A savory blend of seasoned ground beef and creamy noodles, this taco-inspired mac and cheese bake is the perfect comfort food mashup. Get the recipe now.
- 1 pound uncooked elbow macaroni (16 ounces)
- 2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (8 ounces), divided
- 1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese (4 ounces), divided
- 1 1/2 cups sour cream, divided (or substitute Greek yogurt)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 pound ground beef (preferably 80/20)
- 1 4-ounce can diced mild green chilies
- 2 teaspoons chili powder seasoning blend
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes (about 1 medium Roma tomato)
- 1/2 cup sliced black olives
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 2 tablespoons chopped scallions, green parts only
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Prepare the macaroni according to package directions and cook until al dente. Reserve about 1/4 cup of the starchy cooking water, drain the pasta, and then return it to the pot over low heat.
- Add 1 cup of the cheddar, 1/2 cup of the Monterey Jack, 1 cup of the sour cream, the melted butter, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of the black pepper. Stir until creamy and combined, gradually adding the pasta water about 1 tablespoon at a time to thin the sauce until it reaches your desired consistency. Season to taste with additional salt and set aside.
- In a large cast iron skillet or saute pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and season it with the remaining teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Using a slotted spoon to break up the meat, cook until lightly browned, about 3 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to medium-low. Add the green chilies, chili powder, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 3-5 minutes, or until the spices have thoroughly and evenly been incorporated into the meat.
- Spread half of the mac and cheese into a 3-quart casserole dish and top with half of the beef mixture. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the cheddar and 1/4 cup of the Monterey Jack on top of the beef. Repeat with the remaining macaroni and cheese, beef, and grated cheeses.
- Bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Divide among plates and garnish with even portions of the sour cream, chopped tomatoes, black olives, cilantro, and scallions. Serve immediately.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 50 minutes
- Category: Casserole
- Method: Baking
- Cuisine: Comfort Food
Keywords: taco, casserole, comfort food, pasta, macaroni
Cooking By the Numbers…
Step 1 – Cook the Noodles and Make the Mac and Cheese
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the elbow macaroni until it’s al dente, according to the package directions. This will typically take between 6 and 8 minutes. You can also make it in the electric pressure cooker.
Before draining the pasta in a colander, reserve about 1/4 cup of the starchy cooking water to thin the cheese sauce and help it to coat the noodles.
Return the cooked noodles to the pot over low heat and add 1 cup of the cheddar, 1/2 cup of the Monterey Jack, 1 cup of the sour cream, the butter, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of the black pepper. Stir until creamy and combined, gradually adding the pasta water about 1 tablespoon at a time to thin the sauce until it reaches your desired consistency.
Season to taste with additional salt as needed, and set aside.
Step 2 – Season and Saute the Beef
Measure the taco spices.
In a large cast iron skillet or saute pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and season it with the remaining teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper.
Using a slotted spoon to break up the meat, cook until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
Add the green chilies, chili powder, cumin, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 3-5 minutes, or until the spices have thoroughly and evenly been incorporated into the meat.
Step 3 – Layer the Noodles, Beef, and Cheese and Bake
Spread half of the mac and cheese into a casserole dish – I used a 3-quart size – and top with half of the beef mixture.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the cheddar and 1/4 cup of the Monterey Jack on top of the beef, and then repeat with the remaining mac and cheese, beef, and grated cheeses.
Bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Remove from the oven.
Step 4 – Prepare the Garnishes and Serve
While the casserole is baking, chop the tomatoes, cilantro, and scallions.
Remove from the oven, and allow to cool for a few minutes, if you like.
Divide the taco mac and cheese among plates, and garnish with even portions of the sour cream, chopped tomatoes, black olives, cilantro, and scallions.
Tangling Taco Flavors with Tasty Mac
If I’ve learned anything about making casseroles, it’s that each layer requires some attention to detail. While following an exact recipe is the best route to ending up with a great result, it’s all about tasting as you go along as well.
For example, maybe the variety of salt you’re pinching from happens to be flakier than mine and disperses differently. Or maybe the expiration date on your cumin is coming up and it’s lost its pungency. Point is: both the mac and cheese and the beef should be expertly seasoned, and it’s up to you as the cook to make sure every bite is loaded with flavor.
If your family steers clear of red meat, you can also swap in ground turkey or shredded chicken for the beef.
Since this taco bake isn’t exactly packed with nutrition, fold in some greens (like blanched spinach or broccoli, when you’re building the cheese sauce for the macaroni) to up its status as a health food. Or you can try our more veggie-forward pasta bakes, like this roasted red pepper recipe.
For more mac and cheese-inspired mouthfuls swimming with secret ingredients, give these dishes a try next:
- Buffalo Mac and Cheese
- The Cheesiest Mac and Cheese with Crispy Bacon
- Butternut Squash Pancetta Mac and Cheese
What other comfort food duos do you love to whip up in your kitchen? Share your creative combos in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you enjoyed it.
Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on September 9, 2010. Last updated on July 3, 2021.
Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.
About Fanny Slater
Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”