Literally, “cheese and pepper”.
This sounds like this could be the easiest Italian recipe that ever existed. There’s really no more than 4-5 ingredients to make this classic. However, as I have come to learn, there is much more than meets the eye with this dish. There’s also a lot more work involved than you might think, and a heck of a lot more room for failure than I anticipated.
It’s not necessarily that every recipe I try is hard, but trying to create new, original recipes (or in this case, a variation of a classic recipe) can often times take more than one, or two, or seven tries. In the case of this recipe, it took me quite a while to get used to cooking pecorino romano cheese.
I should state here that I live in an area that doesn’t have a lot in the way of gourmet cheese. And it can be quite a drive to find the less common cheeses that you’re looking for. When I first made this, I used the only pecorino romano I could find, and while the container said it was finely grated, it turned out to basically be a powder that did not melt well. So that version ended up in the trash.
The second attempt was done with an actual wedge of pecorino romano cheese. However, I didn’t really grate the cheese as much as I just kind of crumbled it in my hands and dumped it in the pan of melted butter thinking that it would just melt together. I was wrong. I ended up cooking it for so long that the cheese browned up without ever actually forming a sauce.
The third time I made this, I used another (expensive) wedge of pecorino romano cheese and grated it into the finest pieces I could make in my food processor. This finally melted right and gave me the texture I was looking for.
The use of the starchy, salty pasta water is a pretty genius way to get this sauce to come together as well. And, even though I’m not a huge fan of anything overly peppery, the large amount of black pepper in this dish is pretty well-balanced against this strong cheese.
I’m super happy with the way this came out. This takes me back to last year and my travels through Italy. I almost feel like I’m back in Rome when I dig in to this pasta!
Cacio e Pepe
8 oz. pasta (I used fettuccine)
1 tsp cracked pepper
3 tbsp butter
1 cup finely grated pecorino romano cheese, divided
1 cup pasta water, divided
Bring a pot of generously-salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook to al dente. Reserve one cup of the pasta water.
In a large sauté pan, melt butter and add pepper. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Add 1/3 cup of water to the mixture, followed by 1/3 cup of the pecorino romano cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted completely. Repeat this step twice to incorporate all the cheese and pasta water.
Toss the pasta in the sauce to coat and cook an additional 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a plate or bowl for serving.