This is the second article about the perfect partnership of pasta and cheese; the first being Macaroni (and) Cheese. If you though that sounded good and easy to make, just wait til you try this wee number!
I first read about the classic Roman dish, cacio e pepe, about ten years ago. I think it was in an old River Café recipe in the Guardian. I wasn’t convinced… it seemed just a little too simple and basic… but my curiosity was piqued and I knocked up a portion one lazy evening. I’ve not looked back since, and my fridge always has a small stash of pecorino in it; perfect for a quick bowl of this wonderfully life-affirming pasta dish. It really is the perfect fallback meal.
Cacio is a local name for pecorino cheese from Lazio, and pepe is as in pepper; and that’s all you need to know in order to bring a bowl of pasta to life. I’ve tried it with fresh pasta too, but prefer the bite and feel of dried pasta, as the cheese sauce works brilliantly with its smoother surface texture. I particularly love bucatini, with its thick, hollow tubes which flex and bow with just the right ‘bite’. I read somewhere bucatini’s the correct pasta for this dish, but it works equally well with linguine or spaghetti too.
The basic components are dead simple, the preparation time is a shade over ten minutes, and it’s a forgiving recipe which anyone can tackle. Bring a good amount of water to the boil in a deep pan. Salt it well – good pasta always deserves a decent dollop of salt to cook it with – and add a generous fistful of pasta per person. I invariably make too much of this for one person, but it always mysteriously disappears as soon as it hits the plate. You just need to cook the pasta as you would expect, until it’s slightly al dente. When it’s done, be sure to reserve a little of the cooking liquid before you drain it (I’ve absent-mindedly tipped it all out on more than one occasion, so now I scoop out half a cup or so to make sure I keep it, before draining). The starch in the cooking water is important, as it helps to soften and melt the cheese.
As for the cheese, in Rome this would be made with the local pecorino Romano. I prefer the stronger taste of pecorino Sardo if I can get it, but either way, the sheep’s milk in pecorino is perfect for melting, and the salty umami flavour compliments the warmth of the pepper perfectly. I’m not sure about quantities of cheese… i grate up enough for a generous helping. Some recipes call for a mix of Grana Padana or Parmesan, and I find this mix doesn’t melt quite as well, but tastes even better than straight pecorino.
Pour a bit of the reserved water back into the pan over a medium heat, stir in the cheese, and watch it melt. It should quickly become a very pale, almost white stringy consistency, bubbling on the base of the pan. At this stage you’ve got to remember two things: this dish needs to be made and served HOT, and served FAST. Stir in the pasta, keeping everything moving quickly, and grind in black pepper.
This is important, you really need the fieriness of freshly ground black pepper – don’t use anything pre-ground – it needs to glow and sparkle with the heady aromatic notes of freshly ground peppercorns. Again, I tend to subscribe to the principle of twist and grind until you think you’re done, then give it a couple more turns for good luck. Give it a bit of welly: your eyes may water but you’ll be grateful for the punch of pepper against the mellow salty smoothness of the cheese. Sometimes I add a twist of mixed peppercorns over the top of the plated dish: the floral pink and green peppercorns give it a lighter, more playful finish.
Get this onto a plate, pronto, and eat it while it’s still piping hot. A slice of good rustic bread on the side is always a plus, to mop up those last errant smears of cheese and pepper., and I can guarantee you’ll have the cleanest plates after this meal. Quality pecorino is a bit like Clint Eastwood: hard, salty, and matures with finesse, so as long as you wrap it properly in waxed paper, and keep it carefully placed in the fridge, it’ll always sit patiently ready for an emergency callout for cacio e pepe.
It’s one of the easiest dishes you can make in a shade over ten minutes… just water, pasta, cheese and black pepper. Magnifico!