Macaroni and cheese is one of the quintessential American comfort foods, as iconic in its way as "Mom's apple pie" on the dessert table. The simple combination of pasta and cheese sauce lends itself to limitless variations, from boxed supermarket products to the truffle-enhanced extravaganzas of Michelin-starred chefs. For home cooks, one of the easiest ways to vary this stalwart staple is by changing the pasta. Any short shape is suitable, but some are more common than others.
Call It Macaroni
Plain old garden-variety elbow macaroni is the default pasta for macaroni and cheese, and for good reason. Its relatively thin, hollow shape helps it cook quickly, and its curved tube retains sauce beautifully. Also widely used, straight macaroni is somewhat more convenient to eat with a fork. Quick-cooking macaroni is ideal for mac and cheese that's prepared on the stovetop as a rapid lunch, but it's equally good when baked in a casserole.
Seashells Meet the Cheese Store
Shells are another type of pasta that share macaroni's brief cooking time and sauce-holding prowess. Small- to medium-sized shells cup plenty of rich, cheesy sauce in their concave interiors, while more clings to their characteristically ridged backs. Shells -- or the closely related orecchietti, which means "ears" -- give a more elegant appearance to ordinary mac and cheese, with no added effort on your part. For a novel presentation, stuff pre-cooked jumbo shells with macaroni and cheese made from small shells;then bake them in sauce in a casserole dish.
Another fun shape, farfalle pasta are better known as "bowties" or sometimes "butterflies." These flatter pasta shapes tend to spread out on a flat plate, so serve them in a pasta bowl or use a slightly thicker sauce than usual. Farfalle are especially good for "upscale" versions of mac and cheese, because their flat surfaces provide a fine canvas for fresh herbs, wild mushrooms, roasted vegetables and other flavorful add-ins.
A Bigger Tube
For a heartier or more visually striking take on macaroni and cheese, consider moving up to larger tube-shaped pasta. Ziti, penne, rigatoni and similar shapes resemble straight macaroni, but in a larger format. They retain their texture better when baked, giving the finished dish a more satisfying chew. Alternatively, use long spirals of cavatappi in place of ordinary elbow macaroni. Thicker cavatappi -- essentially, elbow macaroni that didn't know when to stop -- is fun for kids, and it holds plenty of sauce.
Any number of other pasta shapes can be used in macaroni and cheese, as long as they're good at trapping and holding your sauce. Fusilli and rotini, for example, are more often used with tomato sauces but are equally suited to macaroni and cheese. The oddly ridged "radiatori" -- named for their resemblance to old-school steam radiators -- are an exotic but highly suitable choice, and so are cartwheel-shaped ruote and ruotine.