Cacio e Pepe
Every so often a dish comes around that is so perfect, so unbeatable, that I don’t bother trying to make it at home. Usually it’s something that I couldn’t make anyway, like fish and chips or tempura or deep fried anything. But rabbit terrine? Crispy skinned blue eyed cod? Enchiladas de pollo? Yeah, I could probably make them. But why bother when nothing I make will come close to what I can get in a restaurant.
Ah, restaurants. Something we see little of these days. We experimented with dinner out last week only to experience our very first atomic bomb, right here at home! It lasted about an hour, ripped our nerves to shreds and convinced us, beyond any doubt, that the baby does not like going to bed past 10 pm. And by does not like I mean try it and she will eat you alive. And afterwards? She will still not fall asleep. Lunch we can do. But, take it from me, there are only so many afternoons you can sacrifice to the inevitable post-deep fried anything haze before lunch out gets old.
So we have taken to buying way too much meat/seafood/stuff on the weekends, thus making up for our old twice or three times a week out habit. Just yesterday, we bought 4 lbs of ground meat, 6 sausages, 2 kielbasi, 2 lbs of tiger prawns, 2 2-kg bags of mussels, and 6 chicken thighs. Our fridge won’t close now, but at least we won’t go hungry or be forced to eat pasta with cheese night after night.
And with that horrible segway, may I present you with……pasta with cheese.
Cacio e pepe – which means ‘cheese and pepper’ in Italian – is one of those dishes that I never bothered to make at home. I tried it once or twice but my results were over-salty sticky globs of cheese with dry spaghetti compared to the silken strands of perfection we used to get in Rome. It had been made mythical to us by our neighborhood trattoria in Rome: its a version of the classic that the New York Times just happens to wax poetic about. Like its name suggests, cacio e pepe is so simple – it’s just pasta, pepper, and cheese -, and therein lies its mystery. How could I get the cheese to melt without clumping and without resorting to heresy? (Anything but traditional Italian is heresy in this house. Unless we’re making Mexican or Afghan or Australian or [insert any other country here], in which case anything goes. Spagbol might as well be from another country, but it’s still not allowed by my personal zealot.) (Another side note: Francesco actually said yesterday that as far as he was concerned, he could live outside of Italy forever, so long as the four corners of his dining table constituted the Italian border. I wish I was kidding, but now you understand: adding heavy cream to the cacio e pepe was not a possibility.)
And then when we were in Boston, as I was perusing one of the many copies of Bon Appétit magazine, I saw it: the recipe I needed. The method, what had alluded me this whole time, was all spelled out before me. And that night we ate a spaghetti cacio e pepe worthy of Francesco’s dining table.
Now that we’re homebodies after dark, getting used to pasta and cheese all the time won’t be so difficult since the perfect cacio e pepe has become attainable. It’s sure easier than buying a place ticket. Or defusing an atomic bomb.
SPAGHETTI CACIO E PEPE
Recipe adapted, with gratitude, from Bon Appétit. The way to make this into the real deal is to use authentic, imported pasta, pecorino romano and Parmesan.
500 grams good-quality spaghetti (or bucatini or rigatoni) – we love De Cecco, which is readily available
3 tablespoons butter or 1/4 cup olive oil
1 – 3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 cup pecorino romano, finely grated
1 cup parmigiano, finely grated
Get a big pot of water to boil over high heat. Have all your cheese already grated. Salt the water once it’s boiling, and add the pasta, stirring occasionally. Cook it for 3 – 4 minutes less than the package instructs, or until very al dente. Using a measuring cup, remove and save 1 1/2 cups of pasta water and drain the pasta.
Now melt the butter or heat the olive oil in a large pot or high-sided pan over a medium flame. Grind the black pepper over a paper towel and add it to the pot, stirring for about 1 minute. Add half of the reserved pasta water and the drained pasta, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and add half the grated cheese. Use tongs to toss and swirl and mix everything together. As the pasta water is absorbed by the still-cooking pasta, the sauce should start to form. Add as much of the remaining water as necessary to make a nice sauce and the pasta is cooked to your liking (taste as you go, you may not need to add any), and add the remaining cheese with some more olive oil or butter. Toss to combine and serve immediately in 4 -6 individual bowls.