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Ask anyone in our family what dish they hope will make an appearance at every potluck and reunion, and the unanimous answer is always my Aunt Maria’s Taco Mac Casserole. The moment this bubbly, cheesy dish is pulled from the oven at gatherings, everyone flocks to get a serving.
Aunt Maria has been making her signature Taco Mac for every family potluck since I can remember. It became her specialty that she’d sign up to bring year after year without fail. As soon as we’d arrive and smell that familiar savory aroma in the air, we’d know Aunt Maria had beaten us there.
Her casserole combines all the flavors of tacos baked into ooey, gooey mac and cheese, with the fun crunch of crushed tortilla chips on top. It’s a flavor explosion of spicy beef, melty cheese and Tex-Mex spices every bite. I’ve tried recreating it myself at home but could never get the seasonings and textures quite right.
After years of attempts and lots of tips from Aunt Maria herself, I’ve finally cracked the code on mimicking her iconic potluck dish. Now I can’t wait for our next family gathering to surprise everyone with a spot-on version of her Taco Mac masterpiece.
With this recipe, you too can recreate the flavors of Aunt Maria’s famous crowd-pleasing casserole. It just might become your own go-to potluck recipe!
Why You’ll Love This Taco Mac Recipe:
- It’s comforting and crave-worthy – Who doesn’t love mac and cheese with a fun twist?
- Easy to customize – Make it mild or spicy to taste with your choice of toppings.
- Kid-friendly and fun – Little ones will devour this playful Tex-Mex pasta.
- Perfect for potlucks – Feed a crowd with this crowd-pleasing baked pasta dish.
- Easy one-dish meal – Meat, cheese, veggies all in one hearty casserole.
- Use extra sharp cheddar for the most flavor. Monterey Jack also melts well.
- Undercook the pasta slightly so it doesn’t get mushy when baked.
- Be generous with taco seasoning and cayenne if you like heat!
- Crush the tortilla chips by hand for better coverage than pre-crushed.
- Customize with your favorite taco toppings like lettuce, tomato, sour cream.
- For thinner sauce, add extra milk. For thicker, use less.
Key Ingredients for Taco Mac
Small shapes like elbows hold the sauce and mix-ins nicely. I prefer whole wheat or veggie elbows.
Lean ground beef provides a hearty taco meat flavor. Substitute turkey or chicken if preferred.
A blend of extra sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack gives that cheesy creaminess.
Crushed tortilla chips on top provide a fun, crunchy texture.
Add as much taco and/or chili seasoning blend as you want for Southwest flavor.
Now let’s bring these few simple ingredients together into cheesy Tex-Mex perfection!
How to Make Taco Mac
Cook the Pasta
Boil the pasta 2 minutes less than package directions so it’s slightly underdone. Drain the pasta and toss with a small amount of oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.
Brown the Beef
Cook ground beef over medium high heat until browned and crumbled. Drain excess grease.
Make the Cheese Sauce
In a saucepan, melt butter then whisk in flour to make a roux. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly. Add cheese and seasonings.
Combine It All
Mix cooked pasta with ground beef. Pour cheese sauce over top and stir to coat evenly.
Bake and Serve
Transfer to a baking dish, top with crushed tortilla chips. Bake at 375°F for approximately 20 minutes or until hot, bubbly and the top is slightly golden. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.
What to Serve with Taco Mac
- Shredded lettuce or cabbage slaw.
- Diced tomatoes.
- Sour cream or Greek yogurt.
- Avocado slices.
- Chopped green onions.
- Jalapenos for extra heat.
- Cilantro or lime wedges.
Variations for This Recipe
- Use a blend of Mexican cheese or add queso.
- Mix in cooked ground turkey or chicken.
- Add beans, corn or veggies like peppers and onions.
- Garnish with olives, salsa or hot sauce instead of tortilla chips.
- Season the sauce with taco blend, chili powder, cumin etc.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of pasta is best?
Small short shapes like elbows work well. I like whole wheat or veggie elbows but any small pasta will do.
What cheese is ideal for the sauce?
I prefer extra sharp cheddar mixed with Monterey Jack but any melty Mexican blend cheese will be tasty.
Should I make the sauce ahead?
Yes, you can make the cheese sauce up to 3 days ahead and store in the fridge until ready to bake.
Can I prepare this casserole in advance?
Absolutely! Assemble the entire unbaked dish up to 2 days ahead then cover and store in the fridge.
Can I freeze leftovers?
Yes, you can freeze individual portions for easy reheating later on. Thaw in the fridge then microwave or bake to reheat.
- Large Pot - For cooking the pasta
- Skillet - For browning the ground beef
- Baking Dish - An 8x8 or 9x13 pan works well
- Mixing Bowls - For the meat, pasta, sauce, etc.
- Spatula and Wooden Spoon - Helpful for mixing and serving
- Measuring cups and spoons
- 1 pound elbow pasta
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 2 tablespoons oil for browning the beef
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- 1 packet taco seasoning or make your own mix
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper optional, adjust based on heat preference
- Salt & black pepper to taste
- 1 cup crushed tortilla chips
Cook the Pasta:
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for 2 minutes less than the package says. This keeps the pasta nice and al dente.
- Drain the pasta in a colander and toss it with a little oil so the noodles don't stick together. Set it aside for now.
Brown the Ground Beef:
- In a large skillet, heat some oil over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef and season it with salt and pepper. Cook it, breaking up the meat so it crumbles, until no pink bits remain.
- If there's a lot of grease in the pan, drain it out.
Make the Cheese Sauce:
- In a separate saucepan, melt some butter over medium heat.
- Once melted, whisk in the flour. This makes a roux that will thicken the sauce. Cook the roux for 1-2 minutes until it turns light golden.
- Slowly pour in the milk while whisking continuously. This prevents any lumps from forming. Keep whisking until the sauce thickens up.
- Turn the heat down to low and stir in the shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack. Keep stirring until all the cheese melts and the sauce is nice and smooth.
- Mix in the taco seasoning and cayenne pepper if you want a little kick. Taste and add salt and pepper until the flavor is just right.
Add Pasta and Beef to Cheese Sauce:
- Pour the cooked pasta and ground beef into the finished cheese sauce. Gently mix everything together until coated evenly with sauce.
Assemble and Bake:
- Pre-heat your oven to 375°F.
- Transfer the taco mac mixture to a greased baking dish.
- Sprinkle the crushed tortilla chips evenly over the top.
- Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until hot, bubbly and the top is slightly golden.
Serve and Enjoy:
- Let the taco mac sit for 5 minutes after baking so it can set up. Then dig in while it is still warm!