When I was in university, my definition of a pasta dish was to boil water, add salt, throw in the pasta, cook, drain, and pour sauce from a jar over the result. Sometimes, if I bothered, I would throw in some sausages or mushroom. It was really a bowl of noodles with red sauce (plus whatever leftovers I happened to have in my fridge).
It was not until years later that I discovered (gasp) not all pasta dishes involve a jar of ready-made red sauce. I learnt about the history of different pasta dishes and the type of pasta to be used for different sauces. Some of these dishes are complex and labour intensive. And some are so simple, you might do a double take on the recipe. Cacio e Pepe belongs to the latter.
Cacio e Pepe, literally meaning cheese and pepper, is the first (proper) pasta dish that I learnt how to cook – it is beautifully simple yet luxurious. There are only five ingredients to this classic Roman dish – butter, cheese, pasta, black pepper and water. The result is a rich and creamy pasta (with a bit of kick) that you cannot stop greedily slurping.
The beauty of this dish is you do not need to strictly follow the recipe – I don’t. Each time I made this dish, it is sort of different. If I ran out of Pecorino Romano, I will use Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), or a combination of both cheeses. If I am having a bad day, I might add in more cheese and butter. You can make this dish your very own – though I beg you not to skimp on the butter and cheese.
Cacio e Pepe
In an ideal situation, you should only use Pecorino which is salty and sharp, complementing the spicy black pepper. You can use Parmesan (or a combination of Parmesan and Pecorino) but you might need to add a bit of salt. Another thing you will notice is that I don’t salt the pasta water. Pecorino is already a really salty cheese so you don’t really need the additional salt. If you feel the pasta needs more seasoning, just add in more cheese.
Recipe type: Lunch, dinner
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Serve: 2 (very hungry) people
200g pasta (thick) spaghetti, bucatini, bavette – these are the ideal pastas, allowing the sauce to be nicely coated unto the thick noodles)
65g Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano Reggiano), finely grated
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (if you like more heat, you can add in another 1 teaspoon of black pepper)
45g unsalted butter
Kosher salt to taste (optional)
– Cook the pasta as instructed on the packaging* in boiling hot water in a large, wide bottomed pan (I usually use the same pan to finish the dish).
– Once the pasta is cooked, reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain. Run it under cold water to stop the cooking and drain. Set pasta aside.
– Clean the pan to ensure there is no water droplets and residue. Once the pan is heated (it should be on medium heat), add in the black pepper. This is to toast and extract the flavour of the black pepper.
– After a minute, add in ¼ – ½ cup of the reserved pasta water and butter**. Once the butter has melted, add in the pasta. Using tongs, make sure the pasta is evenly coated with the sauce. If the mixture seems a bit tight (or if the noodles are sticking together), add in a bit more pasta water.
– Once the pasta is nicely coated with the sauce, turn off the heat and add in the cheese. You have to be quick now – toss the pasta and make sure the cheese is evenly distributed. Once again, if the mixture seems tight, add in more pasta water. Taste – add in more cheese or salt (for saltiness) or pepper (for heat) if needed.
– To serve, top the pasta with a bit more grated cheese.
*To achieve al-dente, I usually shave 2-3 minutes off the suggested cooking time (furthermore the pasta is going to be cooked again later in the process).
** The moment you add in the water and butter, the sauce may spit out of the pan. So please be very careful and try not to stand too close to the pan.