I first learnt about this dish from a very close friend of mine who visited Italy some time ago. We have a running joke about the quantity of cheese the two of use could consume (with little to no effort) and she told me about a dish she had tried on holiday that was literally just pasta with cheese and black pepper. I needed it in my life asap. It is so easy, so delicious and surprisingly simple to make. This is cacio e pepe; pasta with cheese and black pepper.
This dish does exactly what it says on the tin. If you make it properly, you only use pasta, black pepper and pecorino cheese (a very tangy sheep’s cheese which I would thoroughly recommend as it is divine and dare I say it… better than parmesan). A lot of recipes – mine included – will include two extra ingredients: parmesan (which tones down the aggressive flavour of the pecorino) and additional fats such as oil or butter. I will explain both of these in a moment but, first, where did this dish come from?
Cacio e pepe is a fantastic meal for someone who can’t carry many ingredients or needs to use ingredients which won’t spoil. As a hard, dry cheese, pecorino is perfect for this as it can live outside a cold environment far longer than most other cheeses before going off. Dried pasta and black peppercorns also fall into the category of foods which do not need to be chilled and so a dish like cacio e pepe was perfect for the farmers in the Roman empire (where the dish appears to come from).
I should warn you that the recipe below is absolutely not an authentic version of cacio e pepe but rather one aimed at someone without experience making such a dish and as such, it has been slightly modified to make it more likely to work well – the sauce shouldn’t split or curdle at all as reducing the pasta water increases the starch content so everything will come together easily. The big difference in my recipe is the use of butter. The ground pepper is first heated in melted butter before any water or pasta is added. This is because the flavour compounds in many spices are a mixture of those which are hydrophilic and those which are hydrophobic – that is to say they either dissolve in water or do not. In the case of the flavours which do not dissolve in water (think essential oils), heating the spice in melted butter/ghee/oil will allow these flavours to diffuse out of the spice and spread evenly through the dish. By adding water into the mix later on, you are then giving the water-soluble chemicals the opportunity to escape and really, really ramp up the pepper flavour (the active ingredient in pepper, piperine, is only slightly soluble in oil so while toasting the peppercorns before use will help bring out their flavour, if you only use the pasta cooking water in this recipe you will need to use more pepper to get the same heat as if you had included butter).
As I said at the start, the second difference between my recipe and an authentic cacio e pepe is the addition of parmesan. Parmesan is at most, a mere fifteen or sixteen centuries old – dating to some time in the middle ages – whereas this dish dates back to the Roman empire a few centuries before. Luckily we have options today that the original eaters of this dish did not. I really like pecorino, I think it tastes amazing but it can be overwhelmingly strong in flavour and the addition of parmesan really helps hold back the smack of pecorino flavour that this dish can give. By all means omit the parmesan (or use more pecorino) but be warned that it will be oh so salty (possibly too salty for me which is saying something).
If you cannot get your hands on pecorino then you can just use parmesan for this dish – it will still work well – but the flavour won’t be the same. Apparently, wholewheat pasta is also meant to work well as the stronger, nutty flavour holds its own against the pepper and pecorino although as someone who really doesn’t like wholewheat pasta, I have never tried this – I have only heard this through second hand sources. If you fancy trying to make this dish in a more traditional way – good luck! Omit the butter and the parmesan. Toast the pepper corns and grind them and then just add the pasta, a little of the cooking water and the cheese before vigorously stirring and hoping to god it all comes together and doesn’t curdle in the pan!
I love this dish (I have eaten it for I think three lunches over the past fortnight) and I really hope you do too. Let me know how it goes for you in the comments or give me a tag on Instagram if you post it there – I love seeing you guys using my recipes.
Cacio e pepe
Time: 20 minutes
180g dried spaghetti
Salt for the pasta water
1-2 tsp black pepper (depends how peppery you want it)
¾ cup freshly grated pecorino (the dried pre-grated stuff will work in a pinch)
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan (plus more for garnish)
Optional: 50g unsalted butter
Bring a pan of salted water to a rolling boil and add the pasta and cook until just shy of al dente. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce.
In a large frying pan, melt the butter and when it begins to foam, add the pepper and lightly fry until aromatic. If you are not using butter, gently toast the pepper until aromatic in a dry frying pan and then grind it until you have half a teaspoon to use.
Add a ladle of the pasta cooking water to the pepper and stir to ensure everything is bought together evenly. Boil the water in the pan to reduce it and increase the starch concentration. This is what will make the sauce emulsify together when the cheese is added later and will help the sauce cling to the pasta.
Repeat with another ladle of pasta water – you should be able to reduce two or three ladles down in the time it takes the pasta to cook to the right point. You will see the liquid thicken us as it is reduced. The bubbles will slow and the liquid will go translucent.
Transfer the pasta into the frying pan with the peppery, starchy (and potentially buttery) sauce and add another half ladle of pasta water if the pan looks a little dry. Boil for at least another minute to finish cooking the pasta to al dente.
Add around 60ml pasta water to the grated cheese in a bowl and mix to a paste. This step is not completely necessary but I find that it makes the sauce come together better.
Stir the cheesy paste through the pasta. It will loosen up dramatically as the cheese melts but this is fine. Continue to cook for another minute over high heat whilst stirring continuously to prevent the cheese burning. The sauce will thicken up a lot as it cooks and will coat the pasta in cheesy, peppery goodness.
Alternative cheese adding method: sprinkle half the grated cheese over the pasta and stir it through so it melts into the starchy sauce. Incorporate the rest of the cheese in the same way. This method is more likely to give you clumps of cheese rather than a smooth sauce but will be slightly quicker.
Serve with fresh parmesan and a little bit of extra ground pepper.
If you want to create nests of pasta, use a carving fork and twirl the pasta into a nest shape in a ladle before gently transferring it into/onto your serving dish.
If you like this, you should absolutely check out my carbonara recipe – again it’s not a fully traditional one as I don’t eat guanciale (the traditional meat used in carbonara) but if you want to try a veggie one – my recipe is absolutely for you!
Have a good one and I will be back soon with a recipe for a delicious loaf cake (best served warmed and spread with melting butter).