One of the yummiest things on earth is a simple, three-ingredient pasta dish I first tasted at a craft beer bar in Rome (yes, they make beer in Italy) several years ago. Melty tangy cheese and bitey cracked black pepper clinging onto strands of slick hot spaghetti served to me in a little ceramic bowl. Cacio e Pepe, or cheese and pepper in the local dialect, is a comfort food and easy to make yourself provided you perform one crucial technique; otherwise, you will be left with a lumpy grainy mess.
Make a paste.
That’s right! The secret is to use freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, a hard sheep’s milk cheese from the Lazio region, which contains Rome, and freshly cracked black pepper and pour ice water over the peppery cheese in dribs and drabs so a paste forms. The cheese paste will melt once it comes into contact with the hot pasta, and it will be smooth and creamy. To help the cheese adhere to the pasta, use 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water, but you have to work fast while the pasta stays hot. The starch in the water acts like glue and helps the paste transform into a sauce. There is no need for butter or cream or anything else. I like to serve Cacio e Pepe with a crisp green salad and a glass of Pinot Noir. This dish serves 4.
- 5 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1 Tbsp coarsely ground black pepper, plus more for garnish
- 1/3 cup ice water
- 1 pound dried spaghetti, bucatini, or tonnarelli pasta
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
- While you wait for the water to boil, finely grate the cheese into a large bowl using a box grater or Microplane. This will yield about 2 1/2 cups—Transfer 1/2 cup to a small bowl for a garnish.
- Coarsely grind enough black pepper to get 1 tablespoon, and use a fork to mix it into the large bowl of cheese. Drizzle in 1/3 cup ice water, use the fork to whisk it into the cheese mixture, and press the mixture against the side of the bowl, as needed, to form a thick, mostly smooth, and lump-free paste. Set aside.
- Once the water has come to a boil, add 1 pound of dried pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes or according to package instructions.
- Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water. While working quickly, drain the pasta and immediately add it to the large bowl of cheese paste. Use the fork to vigorously stir and toss the pasta with the cheese paste, adding 1 tablespoon at a time of the reserved pasta water to loosen the paste until it evenly coats the pasta in a creamy sauce. (You’ll likely use only about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the pasta water total and not use all of it.)
- Serve with additional grated cheese and black pepper. Serve immediately, topping with the reserved grated Pecorino and a few coarse grinds of black pepper.
While Cacio e Pepe is best eaten immediately, leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days.
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