Cincy Mac

There used to be a place near my apartment called Cinner’s – it closed a few months ago, but before it did, it broke open my conception of what chili was.  Just, wham – broke it in half and filled the empty space between with a nest of spaghetti.  The restaurant was billed as a Chili Parlor and Cocktail Lounge, all done up in the style of Cincinnati, Ohio – Carolyn, an Ohioan (and don’t you forget it), squealed with joy when she first stepped inside, although I’m not actually sure if she’s ever been to Cincinnati.  I’ll ask her.

I had created, in my head, two classes of chili.  The first, a Standard-Issue Chili, made with ground beef, tomatoes, chili powder, and beans – the sort of thing I would have learned to make in the copy of Evelyn Raab’s Clueless In The Kitchen: A Cookbook for Teens that I got when I was twelve.  (Her chili has a little bit of curry powder in it.  Badass!)  The second class of chili was one that my high school friend Ian taught me about when we had a chili cookoff at my house – Ian’s family was from Texas, originally – a big, chunky stew of beef chuck cubes, ancho chiles, masa harina, and no beans or tomatoes.  I thought, “okay!  these are the kinds of chilis that exist.”  There was the Texan-style ur-chili, the proto-chili; and there were the bean-and-tomato-containing variations, like mine.

There was no room for Cincy-style in my repertoire, simply because it was off my radar.  I’d heard of it, sureBut I’d never eaten it.  It never stayed in my head for very long.

Cincinnati-style was invented in the 20s by a coupla Macedonian immigrants who put allspice, clove, cinnamon, and chocolate in their chili and put it over hot  dogs (they call ‘em coneys!) and spaghetti.  I didn’t know you could eat chili over spaghetti.  Okay, that’s not completely true – I did it once at my friend Jack’s house in high school, but his dad’s from Milwaukee, and God only knows what they do up there.  Cincinnati chili, or Skyline Chili, after the most famous Cincy-based place that sells the stuff, is almost more of a sauce than a chili, and what I like the most about it is that, unlike Texas-style chili con carne or my Midwestern Chili-an-beans, it’s got a completely uniform texture.  It’s tender, which isn’t really something that comes to mind when I think of ground beef.  Yeah.  This is one to make in your crockpot – it’s best after hours and hours of slow bubbling.

Anyway, the thing about Cincy Chili is that it goes over pasta, served with shredded cheddar (Cincy Chili 3-Way), cheddar and either diced onion or red beans (4-Way), or cheddar, onions, and beans (5-Way!).  But at Cinner’s, since their entire menu consisted of chilified food, they had other options, and among them was the legendary CINCY MAC.  This was just the thing for a blustery, miserable day in mid-february.  You’d sit down with a can of Hamm’s beer (which is a Minnesota beer but they sold it there proudly – it’s a thin lager on the order of a Pabst Blue Ribbon), lean on your elbow, and sigh as the steam from the Cincy Mac slowly wafted up into your nostrils and rejuvenated you.

The only problem with it, really, was the macaroni and cheese itself, which had the sort of rubbery consistency of a Type I mac.  So, after the restaurant closed, I decided I’d recreate it.  My way.

I hunted around for a multitude of recipes, since the owner of Cinner’s flatly refused to give me his.  And after an afternoon of kinda-hectic recipe testing with Carolyn (Sorry I was a jerk, honey), I came up with a recipe.  Well, two recipes.

See, there’s not so much artistry or variation in the technique of making a chili – you brown the meat, you cook the onions and garlic, and then you throw everything into the pot and let it simmer for hours.  No, the true art of any chili recipe is the spice mix.  Which is why I made two of them.  But both of them involve chili powder, which is its own thing – it’s the magical moment, for me, when a chile, with an e, takes its first step toward chili, with an i.

David’s Homemade Weapons-Grade Chili Powder
Less a recipe and more a set of ratios – make as much as you want


  • 1 part Ancho chiles
  • 1 part Pasilla chiles
  • 1/2 part to 1/4-part Árbol chiles – these chiles are very hot.  The half-part ratio was hot for me and I have an iron tongue.  However, in the chili itself, the heat mellowed.  But beware, is what I’m saying, because this stuff is hot.
  • 1/10th part cumin seeds – just throw in a teaspoon or two.  Nobody’s going to judge you for not doing it by weight.  I’m not, at least.


1. Cut the chiles into small strips with a kitchen scissors.  Keep the seeds, if you like fun.  Discard them if you don’t.  Over very gentle heat, toast the ingredients in a large skillet, stirring frequently, until the chiles are fragrant and the cumin seeds are lightly browned – about five minutes.  Be careful not to lean over the skillet while the chiles are toasting, because the volatile compounds that come off those chiles will HURT YOUR FACE.  There’s a reason they call it pepper spray.  It’s because it comes from hot peppers.

So good, but oooogh how it hurts.

2.  Let the chiles and cumin cool, and then grind it in a spice grinder or small food processor.  You could also grind them in a mortar and pestle, but that would also take a while.  Do that if you’ve got a really big mortar and pestle, and if you just plan to sit with the thing between your knees while you watch half an hour of television.

Blend the crap out of it.  It'll take a few minutes.

Me, I think it’s easier this way.  Although maybe that’s because nobody has ever given me an enormous mortar and pestle.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you breathe the vapors that come out of the blender when you open it.  You will cough for half an hour.

3.  Bag it and tag it.  Taste it, too, on the tip of the finger, and close your eyes and blink back the tears as a sweet scourge of flame lashes your tongue.  This is the moment that chile becomes chili.  Know it well.


Now, with that made, we can continue on with the two spice mixes.  One is milder, and one is more powerful – not necessarily more spicy, but just bolder and more overstated.  To that end, I have named one Team Classico, pictured here:

These are some of my favorite pictures, actually.

And I named the other Team Hypa-Spice.

I spent way too long trying to portion out the spices into those little bowls.

Both recipes contain chocolate, clove, cinnamon, chili powder, and allspice, but in different quantities.  The (unsweetened!) baker’s chocolate is important, because it gives a deep, mellow bitterness to the whole dish – it wouldn’t be the same without it.  So! Let’s get to the real fun.

Cincy Mac

A schema-breaking chili!

The Setup

Option A.  Team Classico Spice Mix

  • 1 tablespoon Homemade Weaponsgrade Chili Powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt


Option B.  Team Hypa-Spice Spice Mix

  • 2 tablespoons Homemade Weaponsgrade Chili Powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 5 allspice berries
  • 1 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt

They’re not all that different – it’s just that some of the proportions are doubled, and it makes a pretty big difference in the pot.  I prefer Team Hypa-Spice, but that’s my tastes.  You may prefer something a little less in-your-face.  (Although how else do you eat food?  Okay wait I don’t need to know.)

The Heist

  • 1 recipesworth of either Team Classico or Team Hypa-Spice
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 large onion, plus another for raw onion topping (optional)
  • 1 can of red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (optional)
  • Shredded cheddar cheese, for topping (optional, but what’s wrong with you?)
  • 1 recipesworth of Essential Stovetop Mac and Cheese


1. First, measure out all of your spices.  Put the dry spices into one bowl – the liquids in another, and leave the garlic on the cutting board because it’s going to be used soon.  You can use the time it takes to cook the ground beef to put your spices away.


2. In a large pot, cook the ground beef until brown.  Drain the fat and set aside – reserve a tablespoon or two of fat for the next step.

3.  Return the pot to the heat and add back some of the drained-off fat; cook the onions (and the garlic from the spice mix) until soft and translucent.  Return the beef to the pot.

No matter what else happens in my kitchen, this is still one of my favorite smells.

4.  Here, you could either A) transfer everything into a crockpot, add the spices and liquids, and cook, on low, for 4-6 hours, or B) add the spices, liquids, bring to a boil, and then simmer, covered, for 2-3 hours on the stovetop.  Why so long?  The spices need to get all integrated, the beef basically needs to be falling apart, and any variable texture should be gone.  It should be a molten lava-sauce.THE SPICE MUST FLOW.
  This must cook FOREVER.

5.  Make the macaroni and cheese as directed, and top with the Cincy Mac!  Don’t forget to pull out the bay leaves.


6. High five!  You made some awesome-ass Cincy Mac.

7.  You could also just make spaghetti instead of the macaroni and cheese, and have yourself a merry little four-way:

Have yourself a merry little four-way; let your plate fill up, but don't come crying when there's not enouuuuugh.  Serve it up over olden spaghetti, lovely golden spaghetti... okay never mind.

I think my Cincy-Style chili could stand to be a little more sauce-like, in that I’ve seen other recipes that add a few cups of water to it to ease along the braising, but I really like it at this consistency.  It coats pasta well and it’s not too wet.

Oh, and I asked: Carolyn’s never been to Cincinnati.  Did someone say ROAD TRIP?

But seriously, Cincinnati residents: let me know if I’ve scrawled heresy all over your city’s dish.  Better yet, let me know if something’s missing from my recipe.

Happy cooking, everyone!


6 thoughts on “Cincy Mac

    1. Make it so!

      At Cinner’s, they used to sell Hamm’s – it’s sort of a dull, pleasant-tasting lager, but I think I’d rather eat this with a brown ale to cut the creaminess of the cheese.


  1. A: This sounds/looks delicious. I might give it a try, even though I’ve got a go-to chili recipe.
    B: “I didn’t know you could eat chili over spaghetti.” This makes me sad, David. This means you lived in St. Louis for 4 years without ever once going to a Steak ‘n Shake, and that is a disheartening concept.

    1. Jessie –

      Who gets chili at a Steak ‘N Shake? Steak ‘N Shake is a family roadtrip tradition, but we never get food there; only milkshakes. Is their chili any good?

      What’s in your go-to recipe?


  2. Two requests:
    1. I would love descriptions of the food. How does the chili go with the mac ‘n cheese? It doesn’t overpower the cheese sauce? Why did you put celery in the mac ‘n cheese, does it add flavor or just texture?

    2. Make something vegan! Cooking for my vegan boyfriend is getting tiring, I need inspiration!

    I love your blog.

    1. Sorry it took me so long to reply!

      1. The chili melds nicely with the macaroni and cheese. The cheese flavor comes through, sure, but it’s the mixing of the textures that makes chili mac interesting.

      2. I put celery in the base of the sauce because it has a kind of white-wine-y flavor – sometimes I put wine in the cheese sauce, but I kind of like the subtler note of celery to go in with the aromatic vegetables. Once the sauce is cooked, though, you can barely detect the veg – there’s so little of it in there, relative to the whole dish, and by the time it’s all assembled, the onion and celery is really soft.

      3. I will work on some vegan things, although I’m pretty sure that the next entry I do will be Macaroni and Bleu-Cheese with Bacon, which is kind of the least vegan thing ever. I do recognize that some of my friends and readers are vegan, though – I’ll do my best to throw an occasional (vegan) bone your way, but vegan cookery is definitely not one of my strengths. I promise to give it my level best.


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