As I'll note in tomorrow's newsletter, Ann and I tried somewhat carelessly, two times, to make this simple-seeming pasta dish, with recipes we found on line. Both were the same: heavy, clumpy, barely edible caccio pepe, the cheese knotted into chunks, separated fat, insipid pasta.
This time, we did some research and found two invaluable sources that followed similar tacks. Lydia Bastianich’s recipe, and Kenji’s serious eats description of what makes it work.
We did a version closer to Kenji’s in that we finished the pasta in a Dutch oven rather than a bowl, cooking the pasta in a small amount of water (to increase the starchyness of the water which will be part of the sauce). First we bloomed the pepper in some olive oil in the Dutch oven, added a ladle of the pasta water into it, then transferred the pasta to the Dutch oven using tongs so that plenty of water came with it.
Then we stirred in the grated pecorino romano, a half cup at a time, over the pasta, stirring continuously, and adding hot pasta water when it became too thick. Cheese, pasta water, cheese, pasta water. The cheese and water emulsified beautifully into creamy homogenous sauce.
Here was the key to perfect cacio pepe: Never letting the cheese get too hot. Get the cheese too hot, and its proteins seize into clumps. And once that happens, there’s no fixing it, no undoing the clumps of knotted protein. Simply use the hot pasta water, which will be under 200˚F, to do the melting. (See the note in the recipe about salvaging the dish if your cheese does clump on you.)
- 2 tbsp peppercorns
- 1 pound spaghetti or buccatini
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 cups finely grated pecorino romano
- salt to taste
- Toast the peppercorns in a small skillet over medium high heat until it's fragrant, about 60 to 90 seconds. Trasnfer the pepper to a spice grinder or a mortar and pulverize the pepper.
- In a large skillet or high sided saute pan, add the pasta and fill the pan with water so that the pasta is submerged. Put the pan over high heat and cook the pasta till it's al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, begin the sauce. Put the olive oil in the pan with the pepper over medium heat and cook for a minute or so to bloom the pepper in the oil. Add the butter and remove the pan from the heat.
- When the pasta is cooked, ladel about a half cup of the pasta water into the pan with the oilve oil, pepper and butter. Using tongs transfer the pasta directly from the water into the pan. Season the pasta with salt (remember the cheese is salty). Begin adding the cheese slowly, stirring continuously as it melts. Add more water, then cheese. You may need only 1-½ cups of the cheese. Keep adding cheese and water until you have a smooth, silkly sauce.
- Serve immediately.