Black pepper and pecorino romano cheese … these are the two, the only two, ingredients for this pasta sauce that shouts “Roma” from the roof tops.
Some people add olive oil, others butter … but the hallmark of il cacio e pepe is its minimalism by way of only two, stripped-to-the-essence and in-your-face ingredients. No one said this was a dainty pasta. It’s strictly no frills, no frippery or furbelows.
There is a bit of a debate going on between foodies of note in the Italian gastronomic scene with the Milanese Allan Bay wanting to paint the cacio e pepe lily with butter (horror!) and being culinary frogmarched for this by chefs Angelo Dandini and Sergio Maria Teutonico. I am just reporting ….
For me, it has always represented a bit of a challenge because when one has to add the grated cheese over the pasta, there is always that very real risk of the cheese ‘curdling’ and ending up looking more like cottage cheese. Not that this aesthetic faux-pas damages the taste … the pasta continues to be eminently edible … but still, one can be left with that dreadful heavy feeling, so reminiscent of the harshest of school report comments: “Could do better”.
On the plus side … cacio e pepe is ideal when the fridge is almost empty and you are in dire need of eating something … most Italian pantries or larders or store cupboards always house some pasta … and likewise there is always going to be a bit of parmesan or pecorino in the fridge. And who ever runs out of pepper?
So this is how I ventured to make cacio and pepe for me and my offsprings’ lunch the other day. They were both starving, I hadn’t done the shopping that morning and the fridge was yodelling back to me with echoes of emptiness when I opened its door. Cacio e pepe loomed invitingly before us as an excellent solution.
When the water has come to boiling point and you’ve added salt and then added the pasta, you can strew some peppercorns and mill some pepper directly into the frying pan and turn on the heat. This is to draw out the essential oil and scent.
When the pasta is almost cooked (i.e. about 3-4 minutes to go), use a ladle to pour some of the cooking water into the frying pan.
Then take put the still-to-be-finished pasta into the frying pan and shake vigorously and add more of the cooking water as soon as the pasta as absorbs it, until the pasta has reached its perfect ‘al dente’ consistency. At this point, switch off the heat and scatter some of the grated cheese onto the pasta, mixing well. Keep adding until you’ve reached the taste you prefer (some will like more cheese than others). Add a little cooking water if necessary.
And yes, if you look very closely on the left of the plate, a little bit of the percorino did ‘curdle’ on me somewhat … but my son and I were starving and didn’t mind in the least. For the record: could do better although showing signs of improvement!!!
Ingredients: 500g of pasta, 100g or more if preferred of grated Pecorino cheese, peppercorns and freshly milled pepper.