Hearty cacio e pepe quite simply symbolizes Rome in a bowl. This ancient Roman pasta dish is temperamental (the heat of the pepper contrasted with the silky rich full flavour of the cheese), gritty (the grainy mouth-feel of pepper and cheese), and spirited (vigorous tossing required to blend the ingredients).
It is best made with more than one cheese such as Pecorino Romano, a hard cheese made with aged ewe’s milk and Parmigiano. The result is richer, stronger, tangier and more complex than the single-origin version.
Made with only 4 simple ingredients it is all about mastering the technique of melting the cheese into the pasta water to form a smooth silky sauce. One mistake and it will be an awful mess of stringy cheese, but when it comes together, it’s strepitoso (phenominal)!
Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta)
- 500g spaghetti
- 75g Pecorino Romano (grated)
- 75g Parmigiano Reggiano (grated)
- 1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper
Fill a pasta pot with water, add salt and bring to the boil on high heat. Drop in the pasta and cook until just off al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water a minute or so before draining the pasta. Place half a cup of the pasta water in a pan together with the pepper plus a splash of olive oil and bring to the boil. Place the almost cooked pasta in the pan and cook for a further minute in the pepper water to infuse the flavour until al dente. Add a splash more of the reserved pasta water if the pasta seems to dry. Turn off the heat and let the pasta rest in the pan for 1 minute (Letting the pasta rest before you add the cheese prevents it from melting and becoming stringy.)
Add the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano, stirring vigorously and shaking the pan until the cheese form a homogenous, emulsified sauce. Add a bit more pasta water if the sauce needs loosening.
There is a difference in opinion amongst Italians whether the pepper should be fried in oil before adding the pasta water, but be careful if you do, as it can add a bitter note to the dish.
Production and photography: Liezel Norval-Kruger