Italian meals often revolve around the pasta dish, which is generally any type of pasta coated with a tomato-based or other type of sauce. A myriad of pasta varieties exist, but one popular variety is elbow pasta. This small noodle is cylindrical and is shaped like a half-moon, or an elbow. Because elbow pasta is small and cooks quickly, it is a good choice as a side dish, or as a complement to soups, casseroles, and some easy-to-make American dishes.
Like many other varieties of pasta, elbow pasta is fashioned from an unleavened dough made from wheat, flower, and water. Sometimes egg is added to the mixture, but pastas made with egg does not keep as long as pastas without. Elbow pasta is a common choice for the dish known as macaroni and cheese, which is, as its name implies, simply elbow pasta cooked and coated with cheese or cheese flavoring. Instant macaroni and cheese is a popular low-cost, easy to prepare dish that is often made with an artificial cheese powder that coats the pasta when combined with water, milk, and/or butter.
Pasta is usually cooked by boiling. The noodle must be softened from its dry state to be edible, though raw pasta is safe if consumed without cooking. After the pasta is boiled, it can also be baked. Elbow pasta is a common choice for casseroles, in which the elbow pasta is first boiled, then added to an oven-safe dish with a sauce, cheeses, and other ingredients. When the dish is baked, the cheese melts on the top of the pasta and the rest of the dish is heated through, creating a casserole that is both easy to make and quite tasty if prepared correctly. Ziti, penne, and other smaller noodles can also be used for casseroles. Other pastas that are commonly baked are lasagna, ziti, and shells.
While elbow pasta can be used for soups, it is more common to see other types of macaroni used in this application. Shells are a common choice, as are ditalini, which are small tubes just like elbows, except ditalini have no crook in them. They are simply tiny tubes; when they are cooked in soup, they tend to thicken and enlarge, but they are still small enough to be convenient for a spoon. Other choices for soups are pastine, which are even smaller than ditalini, and sometimes even smaller versions of penne.