Macaroni and Beef with Cheese. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

I am at the Chefs Collaborative in Charleston, about which I will write more. So in light of the new book Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, I’m reposting what has become one of the most clicked-on posts on this site. That it is a mac and cheese variation speaks to the fact of how beloved it is. Needless to say, raise the quality of your cheese and you make this dish stellar.

I needed a dinner that was easy and delicious, would please everyone, one that also reheated well in case my daughter’s track meet ran late, and I had to be able to make it long before serving so it would be just a matter of reheating come dinnertime. There are of course a thousand options that fit these criteria, but last week, I was in a nostalgic mood and thought back to school lunches, one of my favorites, macaroni and beef. We were always famished by lunchtime and this dish was dependable and impossible to screw up by a 1970’s school kitchen. For a midweek meal I went as simple as could be. The only way I’d change it, I decided, would be to pile a monstrous amount of cheddar and mozzarella on top at the end and flash it beneath the broiler.

I know why we call dishes comfort food, because that’s their undeniable effect—this one was sooo good—but what is it about them that causes the comfort? Pasta and cheese, chief among comfort foods.

Simple Macaroni and Beef with Cheese

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • salt to taste
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • one 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, pureed in the can with a hand blender or in a blender
  • 1 box macaroni
  • 1 cup each grated cheddar and mozzarella cheeses
  • optional seasonings: black pepper, oregano, cumin, coriander, chopped garlic, hot smoked paprika, chili powder—whatever you’re in the mood for (I just used black pepper, garlic, and a tablespoon of fish sauce, which gives it depth)
  1. Sweat the onions in the oil with a three-finger pinch of salt. Add the beef and cook it, breaking it up as you do. (Because my beef was very fatty, I cooked it separately and added it to the pot along with the tomatoes. Also an option, but uses an extra pan.) Add another three-finger pinch of salt or two, along with any dry seasonings you want. Add the tomatoes and any fresh seasonings you may be using, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 1 hour.
  2. Cook the macaroni in boiling water till it’s half-done. Drain it and add it to the tomatoes. (I wanted this to stretch into two meals, so I used the whole box, but if you want your dish to be very tomatoey and beefy, you might want to add only half the macaroni.) Stir it into the sauce. Taste it. Add more salt and other seasonings as needed, and cover. When it’s cooled and the pasta has absorbed the tomato juices, transfer it to a large baking dish and cover it with foil. It can sit out for several hours like this, be refrigerated for up to two days, or frozen a few weeks.
  3. Bake it in a 400°F/205°C oven till it’s piping hot (about 45 minutes if it’s cold to room temperature). Just before you’re ready to eat, remove the foil, cover the macaroni with the cheese and broil till it looks beautiful.
  4. Having used all the pasta, I put the second batch into the cleaned baking dish and covered it with foil, wrote “Mac and Beef, bake, cover with cheese and broil” on the foil with a sharpie—so that next time I’m gone, Donna has a mid-week meal ready to go.

Now that we have this frozen version, it begs the question, “What is the difference between pulling this homemade version and baking it, and cooking the ubiquitous store-bought kind?” Besides the fact that it’s more satisfying to serve from glass than from foil or plastic? Besides the good ingredients and lack of bad ones? Besides all that extra, gooey, delicious melted cheese? Besides that it was fun to make? Besides that it tastes better?

Love. It makes a difference.

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


31 Wonderful responses to “Macaroni & Beef”

  • Annie

    Anyone who thinks they are “the same” should take a look at the ingredients in the storebought version. They are not the same, and I would have a hard time believing that they taste anywhere close to the same. And with homemade, I can use organic ingredients if I choose, and local, grassfed beef.

  • Frank Reiter

    This sounds so delicious, and so simple! It reminds me of the idea behind my baked ziti: can be made up ahead of time and froze, or bake it off and freeze portions of it, etc. Great post!

  • Kristin

    This brings back very fond memories of my childhood. My grandmother used to make something very similar to this but used ketchup vs canned tomatoes but all the rest was the same things. Oozing with cheesy goodness, this was a trip down memory lane that I do plan to make this coming week with the chilly Chicago weather upon us. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Milwaukee Dan

    This is going to sound like I am parroting Kristin’s comment above, but this reminds me so much of my grandma that I am going to have to make it tonight.

    She had a hill and an apple orchard in her back yard. We would spend the day sledding and come in to a big bowl of what she called “spaghetti”. It was just macaroni, canned tomatoes, and ground beef, but it was a very satisfying way to warm up after being out in the snow. Finished off with a couple of those almond windmill cookies she always had, and it was a pretty good day.

  • david

    Concerning cheese quality – when I was a kid, macaroni&cheese was my most dreaded dinner. The way my Mom made it, it was impossible for me to eat – I would literally gag in the real sense; I would spend an hour or two alone and miserable at the table, compelled to finish before I could get up.
    I was sneaking it into my pockets.
    Maybe it was a texture thing I do notte knoe, but she used Velveeta cheese.
    I avoided macaroni&cheese for most of my life after those years, but a few times in later life I have been snookered into eating some made with actual cheese, and it was OK!

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    The kid in me says “wonderful” The adult in me knows that my gaul bladder would rebel.

  • Jamie Avera

    I have made this many times since you originally posted it. It has become a family favorite, although I do add a small can of tomato sauce as well, just to make it a little more tomato-y.

  • Dave Polak

    My mom used to make this when I was a kid. It’s been a long time since I’ve had it, I just might have to make some in the near future.

  • Kath the Cook

    The photo could not possibly be any more yummy looking – makes you want to make it immediately. Probably will very soon. Simple can be fabulous and soul-warming.

  • Wilma de Soto

    Oh, Donna! Oh, Donna! That looks SO good! You do wonderful work.
    BTW You too, Michael.

  • Kelly M

    Johnny Marzetti! My hubby is originally from Columbus — I have to make it every once in a while for him. A bit different, but is there anything better than pasta and cheese and meat and tomatoes? Any combination will do.

    • paula b

      Ahhhh, Johnny Marzetti. Reminds me of elementary school, we’d have that all the time on the lunch menu. The one we’re talking about here, a thousand times better I’m sure!

  • diane

    I’m on the final step– the broiler part– and I’m scared to put my pyrex baking dish in there! Did you?

  • Susan

    The first time I had anything like this was when I was invited to a girlfriends house for dinner. Her Mother served Kraft Mac and cheese with a can of tomato soup mixed into it. I didn’t think it was terrible, but it wasn’t something I would ever envy my friend for getting to eat for dinner regularly. We didn’t eat pasta at home (thanks a lot, Dad) Forward 20 years. My dear late Mother in Law made a version of this for us for dinner one night. She dubbed it “Jimmy’s junk” referring to my brother in law who loved this as a kid. It was an enormous pan of macaroni swimming in a pool of undrained stewed tomatoes and Velvetta which had turned to a pool of glue blanketing the whole. The beef and onions appeared to be held captive in the cheese as well. It tasted okay, but it sure was a sticky mess. Once I ventured to make baked rigatoni, I worked my way to a version of this casserole from there on my own. Basically, it was mac and cheese with a very saucy sloppy joe mixture worked in. My kids thought it was fine, but it’s not something they begged me to cook. Me? I like this stuff, now!

  • allen

    Johnny Marzetti, the one I remember had water chestnuts and sliced black olives, in a pan big enough to bath in.

  • Derek

    What’s the thought behind using a can of whole tomatoes? If you’re just going to puree them, why not start with a can of crushed tomatoes and skip the blender?

  • Bob

    I’ve never done it as a cheesy-melt dish, but make a cracker-crumb crust and topping. Easy to throw together.

  • Dave

    Err… how much is “1 box”? I’m going to guess it means something like a pound of dry pasta?

  • Katie

    This dish looks and sounds great, but is there really a 28-oz-can’s worth of tomatoes in there? From the photograph, it doesn’t appear that there’s any tomato in the dish. I am just curious. The dish in the photograph looks great, and if it’s possible to make it without the tomatoes, I suspect my DH would like it more.

  • Charles

    I haven’t seen or heard “Macaroni and Beef” mentioned in many, many years. Well, since I left the Navy where it was always a very popular dish with the mess cooks since it’s cheap and easy to make. Thanks for the recipe! I’m definitely going to give this version a try soon.

  • zozo

    ahaha love that you added fish sauce to this! I never ate food like this until I moved away from home but somehow cheesy pasta still figures into my top comfort foods. Must be some truth to the serotonin/fatty acid physiological explanations.

  • Marianne

    This recipe looks fabulous so I went shopping for the ingredients and had no idea how much macaroni I should buy : I’m french and don’t know how much weight is “a box”… Could you help me please? Cant wait to start cooking! PS: thanks again for your tomato/garlic pasta, I made it 10 000 times now and we are not even close from getting bored with it!

  • Susan B.

    Holy mac(kerel) this sounds amazing! Do I start here, or start getting stains all over the copy of MELT that just arrived? Thank you so much, for the book and for your blog.

    • Heather M

      My husband makes a lot of pulled pork. Since firing up the massive smoker and tending the wood & charcoal for 16+ hours is such a production, it usually involves several pork shoulders and sides of bacon. What to do with such largesse, you ask? Why porkaroni and cheese, of course! A well seasoned (dry rub only, please) pulled pork is a wonderful beef replacement in this recipe.

  • Michael G

    1lb of mild Italian sausage instead of the 2lbs of beef adds flavor and reduces fat.


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