I always find it a bit ironic that Cacio e Pepe dominates zeitgeisty menus and our social feeds as one of the trendiest dishes of our time.
Literally translating to Cheese and Pepper, this humble pasta was for centuries, the on-the-go meal for shepherds in Ancient Rome during the long months they spent herding in the countryside. They carried with them the three key ingredients needed: aged pecorino, black pepper and dried pasta.
Each element served a pragmatic purpose. The long-lasting nature of pecorino (a hard sheep’s cheese known as ‘Cacio’ in the Roman dialect) rendered it suitable for long journeys. The calorific and carb-laden comfort of the pasta fuelled the shepherds through a hard day’s work, while the heat-generating properties of pepper kept them warm during the cold night watches.
Given that these ingredients are just as sustaining today, relatively easy to come by and super quick to throw together – it’s no surprise that Cacio e Pepe is one of our favourite dining-in dishes during lockdown too. Here’s my riff on the traditional recipe, which makes use of simple pantry staples.
While Cacio e Pepe typically calls on thicker shapes of freshly-made hand-rolled pastas (think bucatini or pici), regular ole spaghetti knocking around the back of a kitchen cupboard works just as well here. I’ve also swapped Pecorino Romano with Parmesan, as it’s relatively easier to source and a worthy substitute given its similarly hard and salty texture.
As you’ll discover, the trick to perfecting Cacio e Pepe is by setting aside a cup of boiling water when you’re draining the cooked pasta. It’s this starchy water, which thickens the sauce later on, helping to achieve the creamy consistency craveable of this deceivingly-simple dish!
Cacio e Pepe
- pasta (proportioned for two people)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 cup pecorino (or Parmigiano Reggiano / parmesan)
- truffle oil (optional, for drizzling on top)
- Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling salted water. Reserve ¾ cup of the cooking water when draining the pasta.
- Melt 1 tbsp butter and oil in a large skillet. Pile on the black pepper and cook until toasted.
- Add ½ cup of reserved pasta water to the skillet and bring to a simmer. Make sure the water is boiling when you pour it in; if it cools before melting the cheese (see the step below), your sauce will be undesirably clumpy.
- Whisk in the remaining butter. Add the pasta and cheese, continuously tossing with tongs until the cheese has melted. You want a creamy sauce (craveably-cheesy and buttery), which coats the pasta consistently. Remember that you can always add more pasta water if the sauce seems too thick or too dry!
- Serve your Cacio e Pepe hot off the skillet, with a dash more of black pepper on top and a good drizzle of truffle oil if you want to dial up the decadence even more!
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