Barilla 3D pasta printer. Source: Barilla

Alas, finally technology for those who like to play with their food.

Give its universal popularity, pasta is a natural prime target for entrepreneurs wanting to leave an imprint on the future of food. Living at the intersection of smart food techniques and future consumer trends are methods to shapeshift ordinary macaroni noodles into 3D wonders that delight the eye and tickle the palate.

Similar to those animal-shaped sponges that mysteriously grow when submerged, researchers at MIT have developed gelatin-based discs that separate and form origami-like three-dimensional shapes when dunked in hot water or broth. Not only are these creations fun to eat, their practical purpose is saving space during transport to retailers and consumers.

“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air,” Wen Wang, a research scientist at MIT told the Tribune of India.

“We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space,” said Wang.

According to MIT, researchers took their discovery to a chef at a leading Boston restaurant. The collaboration led to discs of gelatin flavored with plankton and squid ink, that quickly wrap around small beads of caviar. They also created long fettuccini-like strips, made from two gelatins that melt at different temperatures, causing the noodles to spontaneously divide when hot broth melts away certain sections.

The next step would be to see if the process will work with more traditional pasta ingredients such as eggs, flour and water.

Not to be left behind the innovation curve for indigenous food, Parma, Italy-based Barilla Group, has come up with a 3D pasta printer. In the works for more than three years, Barilla teased the market in 2014 by holding a 3D pasta printing competition. Winners made pasta in the shape of roses, Christmas trees and full moons, resulting in forms able to hold more sauce as well as dazzle the eye.

In 2016 at the CIBUS International Food Exhibition, Barilla showcased a working prototype of a pasta printer that is able to make four different shapes, each in under two minutes. The device, built in conjunction with Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) uses pre-made pasta cartridges loaded with Durum Wheat Semolina and water. Custom-made extruders deliver the final product.

At the 2016 event, Fabrizio Cassotta, Barilla’s Innovation Pasta, Ready Meals and Smart Food Manager, explained to 3ders.org, “All you need to do is load the dough cartridges in the machine and that’s it. It takes only a few minutes: you choose the pasta shape you want and the data is sent to the printer that materializes ready-to-cook pasta, shaped as cubes, moons, roses or many other shapes. Never seen before pasta shapes made with our favorite ingredients,” he says. Premade shapes can be selected using a tablet or smartphone.

Barilla will initially target restaurants and shops that sell fresh pasta before taking aim at the consumer market.

A second 3D pasta printing contest, sponsored by Barilla and administered by Desall.com, ended in early May with more than 1,100 entries with new designs. No winners have been announced.