Cacio e Pepe has been having its internet moment of fame for a few years now. It’s one of those recipes that, while simple, can be surprisingly easy to mess up, and people go to battle over their preferred method. One thing everyone agrees on? The cheese (cacio) and the pepper (pepe) are the stars. This isn’t buttered noodles with a generous sprinkling of cheese and pepper, this is a pasta dish that is creamy, slurpy and so peppery it’s almost spicy. Here’s how I do it:
Ignore everything you’ve learned about cooking pasta in a giant pot filled with water and instead, boil your pasta in about half the amount of water you would normally use. The water becomes even more starchy and concentrated, and since it’s the binder for the sauce, that’s what you want! (It also means you have to be a little more attentive in the beginning to prevent the crowded pasta from sticking.)
Toast the black pepper. Always use freshly ground, and toast it in a dry skillet for a minute or two, or until fragrant. Once you smell it, add a tablespoon of butter and a glug of olive oil. Once the butter is melted and bubbly, add a generous generous splash of pasta water.
Make a “paste” with cheese and water. A lot of recipes say to dump the cheese directly onto the cooked pasta, but it can easily end up clumping together in a gummy mess. Instead, while the pasta is boiling, finely grate a ton of parmesan or pecorino (or a blend of both) into a bowl and add a few tablespoons of water, stirring to combine. Once your pasta is al dente, transfer it directly with tongs to the skillet of simmering pepper/butter/pasta mixture and begin stirring until the sauce starts to adhere to the pasta. This should take a minute or two. Turn off the heat, wait a few seconds, then add the cheese paste, plus more pasta water as needed, until it looks silky and creamy. Voila!
Photo by Kristina Gill.