Cacio e Pepe
The dishes I most love to cook are the deceptively simple ones. Typically they contain very few ingredients, but require care and attention to master. It also helps if they’re considered a classic of their cuisine. I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve always been drawn to those areas of culture where there is considered to be a right way of doing things.
I recently discovered a dish which very much ticks all of these boxes: the Roman speciality cacio e pepe, literally cheese and black pepper. It consists of just three ingredients: spaghetti, pecorino cheese, and black pepper1. The inherent problem that this dish presents is that its sauce is a blend of cheese and water, two substances which don’t in the normal course of events prefer to intermingle. Done wrong – and I did so many times – you end up with lumps of cheese with the consistency of wet chewing gum.
The key to avoiding this is to understand the importance of the starchy pasta water. The starch helps the water and the cheese to mix together properly to make the proper sauce, and a higher concentration really helps.
Here is my reasonably reliable recipe:
- Boil a pot of water. Use less than you would usually use for pasta. Add salt.
- Grate the pecorino cheese. It needs to be very finely grated, almost a powder. Use the side of a box grater which has protruding spiky holes.
- Once the water has boiled, add the spaghetti and cook roughly half way to al dente.
- Heat a frying pan, grind in lots of black pepper and toast briefly.
- Add the spaghetti to the pan, along with some of the water. Slowly add water as it reduces. This increases the concentration of starch in the water.
- Add some water to the grated cheese in a bowl, stir to form a smooth paste.
- When the pasta is ready and the water is mostly reduced, remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. If all goes well they should blend together to form a creamy sauce.
One of the best YouTube videos for this recipe I came across was this one by a rather engaging Frenchman named Alex.
Five if you include water and salt. ↩