Back when we lived in New Jersey, one of our family’s favorite casseroles was Baked Ziti. When we moved to Michigan, however, I discovered that the local supermarket simply did not carry that particular shape of pasta. (Italian food must not be popular in northern Michigan. For a while I couldn’t find ricotta cheese at all.) So I used penne. It tasted the same, and my family wasn’t pasta-savvy enough to even notice the difference.
After a while, I decided to try making the same dish using plain old elbow macaroni. It’s usually the cheapest pasta, and as far as I can tell it works just as well. Of course, it didn’t seem right to call the dish Baked Ziti anymore. So now I make Baked Elbows. It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but my family likes it just as well.
It’s been a while since I bothered to look at the recipe card, so I don’t know how much I’ve changed it in other ways than the shape of the pasta. I used to also make a dish we called “Unstuffed Shells,” which a friend of mine had given me the recipe for. I tried making stuffed shells once or twice, and it’s way too much trouble. Use little shells, though – the size of elbow macaroni – and mix all the same ingredients in a casserole, and it tastes almost as good. Eventually, though, I couldn’t find much difference between that and my Baked Elbows except the shape of the macaroni. And I just don’t see what difference the shape makes.
I know that you’re supposed to use different shapes of pasta depending on what you add to it. Bigger chunks of vegetables or meat do better with bigger, sturdier pieces of pasta. I used to make Turkey Tetrazzini with the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving each year, using thin spaghetti the way my husband told me his mother made it. I found it hard to get the chunks of turkey to mix in well with the thin spaghetti, though, and I eventually switched to using rotini, which seems to work much better. (I thought for a while I needed to call the resulting dish Turkey Rotini, but it turns out that Tetrazzini was the name of an opera star who lived in San Francisco where the dish supposedly originated.)
It’s hard for me to see why I need more than three shapes of pasta, however. Spaghetti is necessary for spaghetti with meatballs, of course. And it also makes a good base for a spaghetti pizza. Rotini is good for a side dish, with nothing more added to it than a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. And elbows work for just about any kind of casserole (as well as being a good craft material, especially if you color them).
What really mystifies me is the amount of money people must be spending on the various shapes Kraft keeps coming out with for its Macaroni & Cheese. The first time they came out with a cartoon-shaped-pasta, I bought a box just for the novelty of it. (I have no idea now what character it was.) The family liked it, but no more than the regular kind. And the special shapes cost more (same price per box, but there was less in the box).
Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is kid-friendly to begin with. I’ve never been a big fan of it myself – my sister learned to make homemade macaroni and cheese when she took Home Ec in school, and soon it was one of my favorite dinners. The Kraft stuff doesn’t come close. But the rest of my family loves it, and it seems to be a favorite with just about every kid I’ve had at the house. I can see trying to coax a child to eat a less appealing food by using cartoon shapes. But if they already like it, why pay more just for the shapes?
Apparently it’s big business for Kraft, though. I find the details of how the shapes are designed and produced interesting. I had never even thought about the possibility of patenting a particular shape of pasta. Or considered the difficulties of creating shapes that would maintain their proportions properly as they cook.
Now that I think about it, I can think of some uses for those cartoon shapes. They could be colored, just like elbow macaroni, and make some interesting arts and crafts. They might even work for stamping patterns, though they might need to be partially cooked to be the right consistency. And they could probably be used as game pieces in some sort of board game.
As food, though, forget it. I prefer elbows on my table.