Sunday Dinner: Cacio e Pepe

February 5, 2012

Cacio e pepe finished

Fresh pasta, cheese and fresh ground pepper.

I’ve been sitting with this post for weeks now, unable to find words to adequately describe this beautiful simplicity of this dish. While I have many go-to recipes, my favorite dishes are often those with few ingredients that commingle perfectly. Cacio e pepe is one of those dishes. Fresh pasta, butter and olive oil, generous amounts of black pepper and salty Italian cheeses. Smug in my restraint, I thought: “This will be a beautifully minimalist post that shall represent the serene minimalist nature of the recipe.” How very zen.

But then I began to daydream about how this recipe may have come about. I imagined a slight Roman woman with knotted hands, children grown and in their own homes. She’s attending to the day’s housework in summer’s heat, sweeping, scrubbing, hanging laundry on the balcony to dry in the sun; and she’s cooking the night’s meal in a sweltering kitchen. I imagined that, after a long day of his own work, the tired husband returns home and sits down to his repast. They exchange tired looks and scant words about the day’s high points when he makes the fatal error:

“This needs more pepper.” “It doesn’t need more pepper.” “It does.” “It’s fine the way it is.” “I’d prefer it with more. Mamma makes it with more pep … ”

She snatches up the plate, whisking it back to the kitchen where she begrudgingly grinds a sneeze-inducing amount of pepper into the pasta, muttering: “Your mother (grind, grind, grind)… I’ll show your mother. You want (grind) more (grind) pepper (grind, grind, grind) I’ll give you  more (grind, grind, grind) blasted (grind, grind) pepper.”

And thus the spicy, salty, buttery combination was born, a happy accident born out of the weariness of a long day. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

Cacio e Pepe (Adapted from Bon Appétit)

1 pound fresh egg pasta (like spaghetti)

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper, or more to taste (ahem)

1 cup grated Grana Padano

1/2 cup Pecorino

Bring four quarts of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta for one to two minutes — it should be slightly underdone. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.

In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter along with the olive oil. Add the pepper, swirling to incorporate. Add 2/3 cup reserved pasta water and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and the remaining butter; using tongs coat the pasta with butter and pepper. Reduce heat and add the Grana Padano, mixing with the pasta until melted. Remove from heat and add the Pecorino, working the cheese into the pasta until it melts and the pasta is evenly coated, and al dente, adding more pasta water if it seems dry.

Serve with a medium-bodied Italian red like Langhe Nebbiolo, and toast your beloved and your good fortune at having discovered this dish. And, for the love of god, please don’t bring Mamma into it.

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4 Responses to “Sunday Dinner: Cacio e Pepe”

  1. Lizbeth said

    I am still smiling about the grind, grind pepper, you paint a very realistic, colorful picture, (along with the sneeze). The spicy, buttery, salty combo sounds soooo yummy!!! I want some..

  2. Dale said

    Thank you for such a fun post. This is one I may have to try.

  3. julia said

    love the “grind pepper.. i’ll give you more pepper! grind grind, hows THIS for pepper?” what a great story and recipe. xo

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