Okay, Supper Club, how in the name of Sonny Boy Williamson can a dish this good be so simple? Yet, cacio e pepe is just that!
I’ve seen it called the macaroni and cheese of Italy. I don’t think so. Not exactly. Anthony Bourdain calls it the world’s greatest pasta dish.
I have two caveats for you though.
One, because it’s only three ingredients — that’s right, I said three — use the best ingredients you can afford.
Two, there’s a bit of practiced skill involved. The first two times I made it, it was fantastic. Not the third. So-so the fourth.
But since then? Predictably fantastic every time. (Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think you’ll get there pretty quickly if not the first time.)
To be clear, it’s not difficult at all. It’s just not necessarily instinctive. Here’s the bonus: if you don’t get it right, it’s still pasta and cheese! Maybe not pretty, but the flavors are there.
If the sauce is thin and kind of greasy, probably too much water. If it has clumps of cheese instead of a sauce, the pan was probably still too hot.
Before I do absolutely anything else, I finely grate the cheese with a Microplane. (It’s not just for zesting lemons.)
I’ve been told there are two very important reasons for this.
First, a fine grating makes it easier to melt the cheese rather than end up with lumps.
Second, you want the cheese at room temperature so you’re not adding cold grated cheese to the pan. If you grate it now, by the time you’re ready for it, you should be good to go.
That little piece of cheese now looks like a ton of cheese. (It’s actually about 2-1/2 cups. Cool, eh?) That’s all the air you’ve grated into it. Don’t compact it, leave it loose, it melts easier. Which is the point.
I’m using whole peppercorns so I can toast (or bloom) them for a few minutes over medium heat in my 12-inch fry pan.
Once the fragrance starts to fill the air, and you’re done with that little happy dance, pour them off into a mortar and pestle for grinding. Or you can just use freshly ground black pepper. (But plain pepper from a little tin won’t move you nearly as much. So please don’t do that.)
We want a lot of good starchy water for the sauce. I learned a method from Kenji from the Lab over at SeriousEats for cooking pasta. Which is why I broke out the 12-inch skillet specifically. We’re going to cook the pasta right in this pan.
Now, if you double the recipe you’re probably going to need a bigger pan which doesn’t work so well. In that case, cook the pasta as you normally would and save some of the water when you drain it.
For two people, I use half-a-pound of spaghetti. And 4 cups of water seems to work great and keep me down to just the one pan for cleanup.
Pour the water in the pan, bring it to a boil, add the pasta and a couple of pinches of salt (don’t get real salty here, the cheese takes care of that)
Stir somewhat frequently, maybe once a minute (I just use a fork for all of this start-to-finish, by the way). Cook for the time on your package directions minus a minute. You should have perfectly al dente pasta and about a cup of starchy goodness pasta water left over.
Remove from the heat (or just turn off the burner if you’re using a gas stove) and wait a few minutes to let it cool. Don’t be impatient. This is important.
Stir in the pepper.
Then gradually add the cheese, a little at a time, and carefully give everything some good stirring with that fork. Create a bit of a fuss in that pan. We’re making a sauce that coats each piece of pasta.
Once all of the cheese is in, and assuming it all came together well, it should look something like this.
Just looking at the picture makes me so hungry. Give me a minute….
It’s that easy. Twenty minutes. You’ve got to taste this. Promise me you will?
Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper) Pasta
Cacio e Pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta is three ingredients and a touch of practice to make one of the most surprisingly flavorful dishes you've probably had in a while. Visit suppertimeblues.com to learn more.
- 8 ounces spaghetti
- 3 ounces pecorino romano cheese, finely-grated
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
Finely grate the cheese first to allow it to come to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the recipe.
Toast the peppercorns in a skillet over medium heat for just a few minutes. You should smell them bloom but not burn. Remove to a mortar for grinding.
Bring 4 cups of water to boil, along with a couple pinches of salt, in a skillet large enough to hold the pasta. The water should just cover the pasta plus a little.
Add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions minus a minute. There should be about a cup of water left. If not, you can add a little tap water but be careful not to add too much.
Turn off the heat, give it a few good stirs, and wait for it to cool a bit. I usually give it 3-4 minutes. It should be very warm but not hot.
Stir in the pepper.
Gradually stir in the cheese, mixing well with the pasta water as you go, until it's all incorporated and smoothly coats the pasta.
To reheat, add a little water to a pan over medium heat and bring to temperature stirring occasionally.