Bucatini alla cacio e pepe
Cacio e Pepe: The ultimate minimalist comfort food
Cacio e Pepe has joined the ranks of Arancini, Culatello, and Ossobuco as a mainstay in the modern Italian foodie vernacular. Photos of its glistening, pepper-flecked noodles grace the pages of every food ‘zine and epicurean blog. Make no mistake, Cacio e Pepe deserves this adulation — it is a perfect comfort food.
Unlike most comfort foods though, Cacio e Pepe can be ready in a matter of minutes using only a few modest ingredients. Literally “cheese and pepper” in Italian, it is the perfect dish for when the pantry is looking a little scant, money is a bit tight, or it is 3:00am and you want the best possible eating experience with the minimum required effort. The only items needed are a box of dry pasta, butter and/or olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and Pecorino cheese. Having said that, the quality of these ingredients makes all the difference.
Raise the bar significantly with Tellicherry, Lampong, or Malabar peppercorns purchased from a local spice purveyor. If you have pre-ground black pepper in your spice rack, do yourself a favor and throw it away. To that point, the jar of tasteless powdered Parmesan from the supermarket aisle can join the tin of pepper in the trash.
Buy imported Italian cheeses whole, preferably those stamped with D.O.P. It only takes roughly two ounces of block Pecorino cheese to equal one cup grated. Adding Caciocavallo, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Grana Padano to the traditional Pecorino Romano elevates this classic Laziali peasant food to next-level Mac and Cheese.
Cacio e Pepe: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts
- PASTA: Cacio e Pepe is commonly made with Spaghetti; however, Bucatini is a better option. The thicker pasta cooked al dente offers a more pleasing palato — or mouthfeel. Moreover, the hole running through the middle of the pasta becomes a premium vehicle for the glossy sauce.
- BUTTER: Seek out the best quality butter that is affordable. Cheaper butter tends to have less butterfat and a higher water content, which means less pronounced flavor and an increased risk of a mess in the kitchen when it hits any hot surface. European or European-style butter is almost always a better option.
- EVOO: Choose a cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil. Cold-pressing ensures the oil retains its flavor and nutritional benefits; furthermore, oil extracted with heat and chemical solvents may contain health risks. Avoid oil packaged in plastic containers, as the oil can leach harmful substances out of the plastic. Look for the harvest date to ensure it was produced within the past 18 months. Olive oil should be pleasant to your palate when consumed alone, just like sipping a fine wine.
- PEPPER: Freshly cracking peppercorns releases their essential oils, heightening their flavor; while toasting the cracked pepper brings out its fragrance and results in a slightly smokier flavor. In comparison, pre-ground, store-bought pepper is generally past its prime, almost always flavorless, and makes any dish — especially Cacio e Pepe — fall flat.
- CHEESE: Buy imported block cheese and grate it. Pre-packaged shredded cheeses contain fillers ranging from potato starch, powdered cellulose (which is derived from wood pulp), and natamycin. They taste bland, do not melt well, and are full of additives no one should consume. Most reasonable grocery stores have an acceptable selection of block cheeses in the deli case. Otherwise, visit a specialty shop or Italian market and explore the cheese room.
- Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add the sea salt to the boiling water, then add the pasta. Set the timer for 2 minutes less than the package directions for pasta cooked al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, prepare a large sauté pan over medium heat.
- Add the freshly cracked pepper to the sauté pan and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the olive oil and butter to the sauté pan. Swirl the pan or lightly whisk until the butter and olive oil combine.
- When the timer sounds, drain the pasta, reserving about 2 cups of the pasta water. Do not shock the pasta with cold water.
- Add one cup of the salted pasta water to the pan, whisking to combine, and bring to a simmer.
- Add the pasta to the sauté pan and toss with tongs until well coated with the sauce.
- Remove the pan form the heat and gradually add the grated Pecorino, Grana Padano, and Parmigiano-Reggiano in small handfuls while continuously tossing the pasta to melt the cheese. Gradually incorporate reserved pasta water if the sauce needs more moisture or becomes too stringy.
- When the pasta is al dente and coated evenly with the sauce, transfer to warm serving bowls.
- Garnish with the remaining grated Pecorino, Parmigiano, and a fresh crack or two of the ol' pepper mill.
- Salt the pasta water after it comes to a rolling boil. It will dissolve faster and incorporate better.
- Remove the pasta before it becomes al dente. It will continue to cook in the sauté pan. The goal is a perfectly al dente pasta as the finished product.
- Bucatini is like spaghetti, only thicker, and with a hole ("buco" in Italian) running through its center. It is common in the Lazio region where Cacio e Pepe originated and is arguably a better pasta for this dish than a traditional spaghetti.
- Use a Microplane grater to get a super fine grate on hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- The beauty of this dish is its simplicity. The marriage of the robust flavor profiles of the cheeses and the pungency of the freshly cracked and toasted pepper are an alchemical masterpiece in and of itself.
- Dare to take it further? Add finely chopped herbs, hardwood smoked bacon, Calabrian chilies, capers, anchovies, whipped eggs, or pig jowl. It will cease to be authentic Cacio e Pepe but provides a suitable canvas for delicious variations suitable for satisfying late-night snacks and unctuous hangover cures.
- Cacio e Pepe is considered one of Rome's four classic pasta dishes along with Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana. Guanciale is the key to the other three, as much of Laziali cuisine is centered around pork. Use guanciale and Pecorino for 'alla Gricia', add some chilies for 'alla Amatriciana', and lightly beat a few freshly cracked eggs to transform your pasta into 'alla Carbonara'. Those recipes are to follow. Buon appetito!