This is one of those recipes that is so easy it hardly even needs a recipe. It has a list of 3 ingredients (maybe four, but more on that later) and is just only slightly more complicated than boiling pasta. But despite it’s basic-ness Cacio e Pepe one of the most delicious and satisfying pasta dishes ever dreamed up. In fact, when my husband and I were in Rome this last summer we of course made it a point to eat as much great food as possible (no surprise there). Despite the many absolutely amazing meals we had, the one we returned to on our last night (and we were both in total agreement) was a bowl of Cacio e Pepe, a slow-roasted porchetta sandwich, a simple salad and a glass of wine from a little stand down by the Tevere which was set up as part of a summer festival along the river. Last meal in Rome? No contest. Okay maybe dining al fresco by the light of a full moon, bathed in the special magic of one of our favorite cities had something to do with it, but the food really was perfect.
The good news is that it’s really quite easy to duplicate a great Cacio e Pepe at home. In fact it’s a recipe I think every kid should learn how to make as they are learning how to cook (presuming they don’t have any gluten or dairy issues). Once you learn how to make it, Cacio e Pepe is something you’ll find yourself making on the fly for a quick lunch or dinner or even a midnight snack. Make a big beautiful salad to go with it and you are set! Kiss boxed mac and cheese goodbye, since this wonderfully cheesy and creamy, almost as easy but so SO much better. Even my kids agree.
Now with a simple recipe like this, the most critical part of the recipe is actually shopping. There’s no place to hide lesser ingredients, so this is where you spring for the expensive, “fancy” dried spaghetti and get your hands on the best pecorino you can find. The choice of pasta is a big deal to the success of this dish. Higher end pasta might run you $5-$6 per pound vs. a buck or two. Look for a note on the packing that is has been “extruded using a bronze die”. This is important because bronze die pastas have a rougher texture (put it side by side with the regular cheap stuff and you’ll be able to clearly see the difference) which means that the pasta has a much better surface for clinging to sauce which is what this recipe is all about. If you’re curious give it a try by doing a side by side test of standard and bronze die pastas. As for the other main ingredient, Pecorino, it’s a hard cheese made with sheep’s milk which you find a lot in central Italy. You might be tempted to substitute Parmegiano Reggiano, but don’t. Pecorino is what gives this dish it’s unique personality and it pairs perfectly with zesty black pepper.
The most authentic Cacio e Pepe will have only three ingredients: pasta, pecorino cheese and freshly cracked black pepper (water too if you want to count that as an ingredient). There are some renegades who will add a dab of butter or a drizzle of olive oil, a total no-no for purists but experiment and see what you like best. The last few times we’ve added a little butter just because we felt like it, but most of the time we don’t. Delicious either way.
Cacio e Pepe
(serves 2 adults and 2 kids)
what you will need:
- 1 pound dried spaghetti (see note above)
- 4 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (about 2 cups)
- 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- salt (for the pasta water)
how to make it:
- boil the pasta in well-salted water (the water should “taste like the sea”), leaving the pasta quite al dente. Al dente means that the pasta will be cooked but retain a bit of firmness when you bite it. Since you will be cooking the pasta with the sauce for an additional 2-3 minutes in the next step you’ll want to keep it on the firm side so the final dish isn’t overcooked.
- Drain the pasta reserving a few cups of pasta water. Add the drained pasta back to the pot over low heat and sprinkle on the grated cheese (and butter if using) and add the pasta water a quarter cup at a time, stirring the pasta to mix everything together. The cheese will clump, then will melt into the sauce and become smooth as you stir. Keep adding water a little as a time until you have a creamy sauce consistency (not dry, not soupy) and keep stirring until pasta it is cooked to your preferred doneness, adding more water as needed.
- Grind fresh black pepper on top of the pasta and taste adjusting with more pepper, cheese, salt or pasta water until it’s just perfect. Serve immediately.