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.
What is the reason for seasoning the pasta after it comes out of the water rather than seasoning the pasta water at the onset?
Good question. Of course the best practice is to season the pasta water till it tastes like seasoned soup. But you start the pasta in cold water so salting after just seems more practical.
The recent Pasta Queen book covers this technique - or one very like it, Yes, the emulsifying of the sauce, water, pepper and cheese is key.
I made this by your recipe (mostly) and was pretty happy with it. I toasted and ground the full amount of pepper but only included half of it in the sauce; the rest I pass at the table to add as desired. I found that in my unheated farmhouse kitchen the pasta water in the skillet cooled quickly and wasn't quite warm enough to melt the cheese toward the end; if I make this again I will leave it on simmer after I remove the pasta. But the overall technique worked great and the recipe earned two thumbs up from myself, my husband (normally a black-pepper hater) and my brother (for whom nothing is ever too spicy).
Thanks for the feedback and good notes!
Nice recipe. Spellcheck might be helpful.
I only spotted one typo. What am I missing?
Made it last night. Was great. I wish I'd separated out some pepper as it was too much. I used a grinder and over ground I am guessing. I like the comment where they held 1/2 for the table. I concur. The emulsification was actually perfect, but the amount of pepper and ease at which it joined the sauce as a powder made the entire dish grey. Next time also probably go the mortar. Rookie mistake. With all that, there were no leftovers.
Thanks for giving it a go. I think you're right about the amount of pepper. Easy to add more later to one's taste. Thanks for all the comments!
We had clumps- the pasta water may have been too hot? It didn’t emulsify as hoped but my husband still gave it a thumbs up! Will try again….
Yes, the pasta water was too hot. I've done some research. It should be around 160 to 165 degrees F. Sorry about that!