I’m sure I haven’t thought about, let alone made cacio e pepe in over a decade, but I was watching an Anthony Bourdain thing (damned Anthony Bourdain!) in which he brought it up and bam! Instant craving achieved. I had to have it, like, right meow.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit it into my foodie roster (too much other foods to get through before I could justify purchasing MORE food), so I started looking it up and, lo! It turns out that cacio e pepe has become a thing in the last few years. Like, a Thing thing. Made in restaurants and shit. This is a dish that I was introduced to because I refused to eat my step-dad’s traditional family tomato sauce. It was a copout dish, in my mind. No big deal.
Later in life, I did come to learn that putting it together requires a certain level of finesse beyond simply tossing some pasta in some cheese. I even recall visiting a pasta joint in Montréal where everything was drenched in their house tomato or alfredo sauce or some combo of the two, so nothing appealed and my step-dad, bless him, asked if they could do cacio e pepe. The waitress gave him some side-eye but went to the kitchen to ask only to come back and inform us that no one there knew what it was. “You know? Butter, cheese, pepper? On pasta?”, responded my stepfather. “Oh sure, we can come up with something.” the waitress said and came back with the blandest bowl of noodles I ever did have and I’ve lived on all manner of bland pasta, so that’s saying a lot.
So yeah, I never imagined it would become a Thing thing, yet here we are and I am really glad of that because, when it’s done right, it is a truly sublime dish. Its beauty is in its simplicity of ingredients combined with technique. When cacio e pepe is done right, each noodle is not only enveloped in rich, velvety cheesy and peppery flavour, they’re also infused with it.
This is where those two mysterious and oft-neglected, but essential ingredients in cooking come into play: time and space.
So much of the dish is counter-intuitive to everything we’ve ever learned about cooking pasta, from cooking the pasta itself in far less water than we’re told to, to finishing it off by infusing it with more liquids to the complete and utter lack of aliums – that’s right; no garlic or nuffink! don’t worry, you shan’t miss it. I’ll get into more of those details in the recipe itself, but right now I want to impress upon you that, for this dish, your wok is your friend.
Yes, use a wok.
It makes a lot of sense if you consider the history of pasta, but suffice I to say that this dish requires that you move a lot of pasta around quite vigourously and that, mes amis, is exactly what a wok was built for.
This recipe makes four really big main servings or six smaller ones. Resist serving it as a side at least the first time, please? It’s just so, so good as a standalone. Once you put some in your face, you’ll just want to keep putting more in your face. A simple salad as a starter or along side is not remiss, but don’t be a masochist like me a serve it with steamed veg on your first try as you’re likely to become frustrated with timing things right in the final steps.
What you need:
- 600 grams of spaghettini, linguini or other long pasta you twist around a fork
- 1/3 cup of butter
- 2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 and 1/4 cup pecorino romano, finely grated
- 3/4 cup parmigiana reggiano, finely grated
- About one cup of water from the pasta
What you do:
- In a bowl, combine the grated cheeses and set 1/4 cup of the combo aside in another vessel.
- In a large pot, bring 4.5 liters of salted water to a boil.
- Just before adding your pasta to the boiling water, place your wok on a burner over medium-low (on the lower side of medium-low) and add the ground pepper.
- Cook your pasta in the boiling, salted water for about 6 minutes (this time will depend on the type of pasta you choose). Stir it continuously for the first minute after adding the pasta to ensure strands don’t stick to each other. Stir frequently as it cooks to ensure the same.
- After your minute of stirring the just-added-to-the-water pasta, add the butter to the wok, stirring continuously until the butter has melted.
- Don’t forget to stir your pasta.
- Once the pasta is done, and done means a little less cooked than al dente, kill the heat under the pasta.
- Increase the heat under the wok to the medium side of medium-low and measure one cup of the pasta water (use a ladle!) out and stir it into the butter and pepper mix in the wok.
- Whisk about 1/3 of the cheese mix into the wok mix until combined.
- Move about 1/3 of the pasta from pot to wok and toss, adding a little more cheese.
- Continue adding pasta and cheese to the wok until all are mixed in.
- Add more pasta water as necessary to keep the sauce loose and creamy, but don’t over-water to the point that it becomes runny.
- Do not let the pasta rest in the wok. Once everything is combined, serve immediately on plates or in bowls and top each with a sprinkling of the reserved cheese mixture and some more freshly ground pepper.