I’m pretty much a pasta fiend, particularly good homemade pasta, so an evening home with my son afforded a good opportunity to try out my pasta cooking chops on this ultimate reference pasta — cacio e pepe. Literarily, it just means “cheese & pepper” and it’s an extremely basic pasta from Rome that showcases its extremely few ingredients. In Gavin tradition, like my ultimate pizza or my uber tiramisu, I try to do it to the highest standard of quality.
That starts with a good pasta. Cacio e pepe is traditionally done with spaghetti or a similar thick long pasta. This pici, is a thick hand rolled pasta, like fat spaghetti. This one is homemade (not by me) out of durum semolina and has a fantastic bite and coarse surface perfect for saucing.
This is a 22 minute to al dente pasta! Wow. I used a pinch of applewood smoked salt in the water to lend a slight smokiness to it.
Some other supplementary ingredients. More on the egg late, but you need a little fat. The most traditional would be pancetta, but staying dairy olive oil or butter work fine. Romans would usually use the pork or olive oil. In the grinder is very fresh, very strong black peppercorns. This awesome grinder makes a very coarse grind. It’s extremely important to have coarse ground bitey pepper. This pasta is about cheese and pepper — so none of that weak sauce pepper with no flavor.
The don’t call it “cheese and pepper” for nothing.
My son and I grated the cheese as the pasta cooked. Only real, fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano will do. Check out the cute little olive wood grater box I bought last time I was in Tuscany.
And the signature cheese: Cacio de Roma (Roman Cheese). This is a sharp, salty, medium firm, creamy sheepmilk cheese. You could use generic pecorino, but it’s not really creamy enough. This is the right cheese.
Drain the pasta and keep some water (I just plucked it out with tongs and dropped it into the strainer). Even at 22 minutes it was seriously al dente, very thick, with a nice weightiness to it. Don’t rinse it. You want that starch.
Now here is the secret to proper pasta that Americans forget. You have to make the sauce in a pan and throw the cooked pasta into it. Before adding the noodles, I melted some fat (butter this time), then toasted some pepper in it for a minute or so, then added a bit of the pasta water and boiled it. This creates a butter/starch base. In went the pasta.
And then most of the cheese (about 3/4 a cup of ground Parmesan and 1/3 a cup of Cacio). You toss it all around for a minute or so to melt the cheese into the sauce and coat the noodles.
To finish it, I ground in a bunch more pepper and threw in an egg yolk. A tasty Carbonara I had a month ago gave me this idea. It’s not strictly traditional to the Cacio e Pepe, but it does add a nice richness. I stirred that in too.
And voila, one heart stopping bowl of simple pasta. This was pretty spectacular. Very weighty, with a richness to the eggy cheese, and a good bite from the pepper. Adult mac & cheese done right.