The other night, I was laid up with a bad kitchen injury and a dear friend offered to make me dinner. Little did I know that she'd inspire not only a cheese column but also the future of my mac n' cheese making.
My friend's mac n' cheese is actually her signature dish, so her skills are already pretty solid. A key element, of course, is high-quality cheese, of which she has a range of trusted picks. She always switches up the combinations, but the cheeses of choice for this particular batch were Gruyere, Fontina Val D'Aosta, and an excellent sharp white cheddar. Other stats: breadcrumb topping, super-rich and plentiful bechamel, and perfect seasoning. It was nothing fancy, but she nailed the essentials.
This time, though, on a whim, she changed one thing that she-- and I-- may never stray from again: the pasta shape. It took a few bites to realize what was making this plateful that much more cheesy, creamy, and punchy. It was, quite simply, mac n' cheese on steroids.
If you examine the shape of a single round of a wagon wheel, you'll see seven regions for the trapping and coating of cheese sauce, plus a ridged exterior: even more gripping power. Compare this geometric figure to a macaroni noodle, totally smooth, with only two openings, and a narrow tube of potential non-cheesiness between them, no less. The advantages of the first are clear.
I've been around the block experimenting with different varieties of pasta for my mac n' cheese, so it is not with an amateur sensibility that I endorse this selection with utmost insistence. I even tend, more often than not, to opt for anything but macaroni. I go for varieties that are anything but mainstream, as if some esoteric choice of pasta would somehow elevate what really shouldn't be elevated, at all. So irony slapped me in the face when the humble wagon wheel really turned my world so topsy turvey.
The specific shape of a pasta is key, sure, to the success of any pasta dish, but nothing makes an argument more convincing than this shape and sauce combination. (Just ask my friend. She's a lawyer.)
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant TV chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: Homemade Mac n' Cheese: What's Your Favorite Method?
(Images: Cupcake Project, used with permission, courtesy of J. Pollack Photography; Emma Christensen)