Updated: Aug 26, 2021
It’s the week between Christmas and New Year’s. You’re not entirely sure what day it is, just that it’s December twenty-somethingth; a fitting end to a year that challenged our understanding of the passage of time. Somewhere around mid-day, in your wandering fugue state, you venture to the kitchen to reflexively examine the fridge. The waning Christmas dinner leftovers enjoyed a strong run, but now have lost their appeal. Cookies won’t do the trick this time, and you tried liquid-lunch yesterday (with disastrous results). You don’t want a complicated, many-step recipe, and you would prefer to avoid a grocery store run. What you need is a comforting bowl of pasta, something simple and satisfying. What you need is cacio e pepe (recipe link).
As the literal translation of its name would suggest, a plate of cacio e pepe should consist of three ingredients: pasta, cheese (pecorino romano), and black pepper. You have all of these ingredients in your fridge or cupboard right now, and start-to-finish, this recipe will take nearly 20 minutes out of your day off.
Cacio e pepe’s humble origins make the final result truly remarkable. How can something so simple yield such a delicious pay-off? It’s all about the method, the alchemy of pasta water, aeration, and residual heat; there’s no cream yet it’s a rich, creamy pasta. There’s nowhere to hide poor technique in this dish, but don’t be intimidated! The principles of good cacio e pepe hold true for pasta writ large, and you’ll enjoy having this option in your weeknight dinner arsenal.
Cacio e pepe maintains its rightful place among the holy trinity of Roman pasta classics, and we enjoyed the apex interpretation at the restaurant Roma Sparita (pictured, check out the fried cheese cone!). Since then, I’ve been driven to madness trying to find it done right here or trying to do it right myself. I think, finally, I’ve arrived close to a passable version by Roman standards.*
*no Romans were consulted in making this assessment.
Here are a few pointers for following the recipe below:
Use dried pasta, preferably spaghetti. You’ll need a pasta that has a longer cook time, which yields a lot more starch in the pasta water. Starchy pasta water is the literal and figurative glue of this (and most) pasta dishes.
The cheese-paste idea comes courtesy of this guy. He’s Abruzzese, so you can trust him, just don’t add any superfluous ingredients to the cacio e pepe or he’ll roast you to his 390,000 subscribers.
Finishing the pasta-cooking in the saucepan with a ladle of pasta water is a crucial final step to most pasta dishes, not limited to cacio e pepe. Give it a try next time you’re making pasta with a fresh red sauce, or with vegetables. The starchy water will tie the whole dish together.
2 plates of pasta
275g dried spaghetti
25-30g shredded pecorino romano
1 tbsp crushed black pepper
1---Bring a large pot of water to boil. When boiling, pour in a healthy amount of salt. Shave the pecorino romano into a small bowl. Add your pasta to the boiling water and give it an occasional stir. Add a few teaspoons of the pasta water to the cheese about midway through the pasta’s cooking process and stir to form a paste.
2--- Place a sauté pan over medium heat. When the pasta is a few minutes away from ready, add a ladle (roughly more than a cup) of the pasta water to the sauté pan and bring to a boil. When boiling, use a spider strainer or tongs to take the pasta out of the large pot and into the sauté pan. Let the pasta water reduce by about two-thirds while finishing the pasta.
3--- Turn off the heat on the sauté pan. Toss in the cheese and begin to stir and toss vigorously. After a few minutes of continuous stirring or flipping, the paste will begin to evenly distribute throughout the pasta water and start to form a creamy sauce. Add the pepper and give the pasta a few more tosses in the pan.
4--- If the cheese sticks to the bottom of the pan, add a little more pasta water and continue to toss. The pasta is ready when it looks ready.