My first encounter with Cacio e Pepe was on Christmas while my parents were in town to visit. My mom obviously inspired the idea to have a large Christmas alla Romana with a lunch at home. My friend was joining us, and she is a vegetarian... so what to make? We quickly decided on a menu: cacio e pepe being the obvious primo piatto, secondo of agnello (not for the vegetarian, sorry Lina!), and two delicious Roman contorni; puntarelle e carciofi alla romana!
My mom and I bought the ingredients, my mom having the wherewithal to ask the person serving us at the cheese counter: "How much pecorino would we need for 5 people?" The answer, shocking. They suggested an amount that seemed almost double what we would have asked, but always trust the counter suggestions! We also asked to have the cheese grated immediately - my least favorite activity is grating cheese! Love how they do that for you at the cheese counters here in Italy!
Anyways, cooking time. Lots of back and forth discussion - 2 cooks in the kitchen can be disastrous, especially a mother daughter combo - but we were determined and with much back and forth and helping one another we somehow managed to make a first successful tonnarelli cacio e pepe! Creamy, no cheese globbing. A Christmas miracle!
I share this prelude into my cacio e pepe experience because, it was either beginners luck or a Christmas miracle. I tried multiple times after to produce the same product. Sometimes I was successful, sometimes it ended horribly. But I couldn't figure out the trend. My mom had the same experience. I will note that first time we used fresh tonnarelli! Which could have had something to do with our starchy success ;)
February rolls around the corner and I decide I am having a big dinner with my friends at my house and I am cooking cacio e pepe! My Roman friend gives me the side eye at this announcement "this american thinks she can cook a cacio e pepe!? HA!" Needless to say, she was very skeptic. There is always the discussion around the difficulty of making a good cacio e pepe whenever someone suggests they might make it. "You sure you can do it, Lia?" "That's one of the most difficult pasta dishes to make correctly!"
Okay, okay, I get it. It's risky for a dinner party. But I went after it! Fresh tonnarelli again ;) Some moral support, some wine and voila! Another creamy and delicious success!
From then on, I'd say I have a 95% success rate for creaminess. So how do I do it!? Ready below ;)
As I've mentioned in the past, I cook like my Nonna, so I don't measure anything accurately, so my recipe may require some trial and error on your end, but give it a go! Below is based on a single portion.
- CACIO (Pecorino Romano - grated): Approximately 1 cup
- PEPE (A PIACERE!): amount depends on how much you like pepper, up to you again! Use peppercorns and grind them in a mill as opposed to pre-grounded pepper from a shaker. Peppercorns are spicier and tastier :)
- PASTA: For one portion, I use one quarter of a 500g pack of pasta (precise!) PSA: To my fellow americans out there, spend the extra 75 cents for non supermarket brand pasta, it makes a difference!
- PASTA WATER
1. Set your pasta water to boil. Fill your pot with just enough water to cover the pasta amount you are throwing in. The starchiness of your pasta water is key to the creaminess of your end result. The water becomes more starch rich of course if there is a higher ratio of pasta to water. This is pro tip #1!
- Cheese: In a large bowl, pour your grated pecorino romano cheese
- Pepper: Place a frying pan or saute pan on the stove (size relative to your pasta portion, pan big enough to fit your cooked pasta and mix). Grind your pepper directly into the pan. Turn the pan on low heat to begin toasting your pepper. Keep in mind your pepper to cheese ratio and your tolerance to pepper. I hate super peppery versions, my mom enjoys them though however
3. When your water comes to a boil, salt your water if you wish. I personally don't salt my pasta water as I find the pecorino is already quite salty, but if you're salty, go crazy! Throw the pasta in and cook per package instructions minus 2 minutes cooking time.
4. When the timer goes off, take a ladle of pasta water and throw it into the pan on the toasting pepper. Raise the pan heat to medium.
5. Now prepare your cheese mix! Add small amounts of the pasta water at a time to your bowl of grated pecorino cheese, until you reach a paste like consistency. Pro tip #2, make a paste not a liquid! It should not be liquidy. If you put too much water, have extra cheese on standby to throw in to make thicker again.
7. Strain your pasta and throw the pasta in the pan with the pepper. Begin to mix the pepper and pasta together with the extra pasta water. Get that pepper all over! Add a little of pasta water at a time to continue cooking the pasta for about a minute. After a minute is up, liquid in the pan should minimal.
8. Take the pan off the heat. Wait 20-30 seconds for the pan to cool slightly. Pro tip #3: If the pan is too hot it could cause your precious cheese to clump, we don't want that!
10. Mo se magna!