Making a great Italian pasta dish doesn’t need to be complicated. Cacio e pepe satisfies all cravings, combining al dente pasta with a creamy pepper sauce. It’s the ultimate comfort food.
Using high quality aged cheeses, extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of heavy cream, and cracked pepper right before serving creates a flavorful sauce and a crave-able dinner.
There are a few essential tricks to ensure that the sauce stays smooth, instead of clumpy. Use these simple techniques to make a bowl of cheesy pasta that will disappear fast!
WHAT IS CACIO E PEPE?
Cacio e pepe literally translates to “cheese and pepper,” so no guessing on what ingredients to grab from the fridge! It has Roman origins, traditionally using Pecorino Romano cheese, made from aged sheep’s milk, and freshly ground black pepper as the base for the sauce.
It was the first dish I ordered when I visited Rome years ago, and although basic, the pungent and salty cheese kicked up with peppercorns and perfectly cooked noodles was life changing.
HOW TO MAKE CACIO E PEPE
This recipe contains just a handful of ingredients; however, making this dish work isn’t about simply tossing the pasta together. Timing is critical.
After the pasta is cooked, some of the boiling liquid is reserved. A portion of the hot water is then mixed with Pecorino Romano cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, heavy cream, olive oil, and black pepper to create a sauce.
The noodles are then tossed with the cheese mixture, and a little more starchy pasta water is added to make sure that sauce is luxurious. The sauce is not heavy—it has just enough richness to coat each noodle.
HOW TO PREVENT THE CHEESE FROM CLUMPING
When people make this dish, the tricky part seems to be clumping cheese. I have a few simple tricks to help prevent that from happening:
- First, start with high-quality wedges of aged, hard cheese, and grate it yourself. Don’t buy the imitation cheeses. With so few ingredients, quality really counts.
- Use a microplane or small hole grater to achieve small shreds of cheese, so it melts quicker.
- Use starchy pasta water. When mixed with the aged cheese, the starch coats the proteins and prevents the cheese from sticking together when heated. This melts the cheese and creates a smooth texture. It’s similar to creating a very light roux for a bechamel.
- Lastly, add heavy cream, which helps the sauce become a smooth and homogeneous mixture.
WHAT IS THE BEST PASTA FOR CACIO E PEPE?
Long strands of pasta like spaghetti, tonnarelli (a fresh square shaped noodle), or bucatini are top choices.
I used bucatini for this recipe because I like the larger width compared to spaghetti, and the bucatini pasta is hollow in the center. This enables more sauce to be trapped in the center for unexpected, yet delightfully chewy bursts of sauce.
It’s really cook’s choice, but make sure they are long noodles, so that twirling is at its maximum.
A velvety consistency clinging to long noodles is the goal! I highly recommend cracking some extra black pepper on top right before serving. The snappy aromatics are so enticing, it’s difficult to wait to dig in!
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Cacio e Pepe Recipe
- 1 pound spaghetti, bucatini, or thick spaghetti
- 1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 3 ounces (1 3/4 cup) Pecorino Romano cheese, fresh and finely grated
- 1 ounce (1/2 cup) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, fresh and finely grated
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly cracked, plus extra for garnish
1 Cook the pasta: In a large pot, add water and bring it to a boil. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and pasta, stirring occasionally until al dente (follow manufacturer's cook times). Reserve 1 1/2 cups of pasta water. Drain the pasta into a colander, then transfer the pasta to a large bowl.
2 Make the sauce: Into a medium bowl, add the finely grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of the hot reserved pasta water until smooth, or nearly smooth. Whisk in the heavy cream, olive oil, black pepper, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt.
3 Combine the pasta and sauce: Slowly pour the cheese sauce over the pasta, and gently toss to combine. Continue to mix the pasta for 1 to 2 minutes, gradually adding in the remaining 1/2 cup of pasta water as needed, until the desired consistency is reached.
4 Serve: Divide pasta among bowls and garnish with extra cheese and black pepper.
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