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spaghetti cacio e pepe

February 25, 2011
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When I was in college, I studied abroad in Rome.  It was the best time of my life.  Excluding, of course, the time that I’ve spent with the beloved carnivore – but we’re in a long-distance relationship, so probably that adds up to less face-to-face time than the time I spent in Rome (kidding, darling . . .)

Rome was magical.  It helped that the academic portion of my time there was, while illuminating, hardly as rigorous as my normal college courseload.  I can’t remember who, but someone told us that there were four courses in which we were officially enrolled over the course of the quarter but that there was a fifth, quarter-long course – Rome herself.   I aced that course.  I spent hours wandering around Rome by myself, visiting the baths of Caracalla, going to the Pantheon dozens and dozens of times just because I could, and writing in my journal while I sat in the Circus Maximus watching Italians play Frisbee with their dogs.  Turns out that’s a universal thing.

The Ponte Sisto – my favorite

And then there was the food.  I must have gained twenty pounds but I didn’t care – I figured I was 20 and could lose the weight later, but Rome was right there with a ton of delicious food waiting to be eaten.  Two months back eating dorm food and I could fit in my jeans again.  I made the right choice.

It’s hard to recreate Italian food, because so much of Italian eating is ambience.   Sitting in a piazza enjoying a three hour meal and a bottiglia di vino – there’s nothing quite like it here in the States.  But it’s always worth a try.

There was one dish that I ordered at least twice a week – spaghetti cacio e pepe.  I had no idea what was in it, but it was delicious.  Then, after my time in Rome was over, I spent two weeks in Paris with my college roommate (she of the lemon bars) who was doing a year-long program there.  As beautiful as Paris is, I already missed Rome and was determined to recreate my favorite dish.  I scoured the internet and it wasn’t long before I discovered that my favorite dish was also absolutely the easiest Italian pasta dish to make. It has all of four ingredients – pasta (spaghetti or really anything you want), Romano cheese, black pepper, and olive oil.

The hard part was finding Romano cheese.  Thank heavens my roomie speaks fluent French, which made it a lot easier to go to half-a-dozen cheese stores on our quest for Romano cheese.  Apparently, the French aren’t really all that concerned with stocking Italian cheese.

Now, this is one of my go-to easy weeknight meals.  It goes beautifully with some oven-baked chicken.  Lately I’ve been having it with a bun-less hamburger, mostly because that’s what I had lying around.  Whatever you eat it with, really, it’s delicious.

This recipe is also very adaptable.  You can make a big batch for a dinner party, or just a small batch for you and your very own beloved carnivore, or even a single serving.  For that reason, I’ve written the recipe for a single serving and, in parentheses, written the amounts you would use with a whole box of pasta.  In between those two sizes, you can do your own multiplying/dividing.  As a girl that cooks for one most of the time (for now!), I find this website helpful – if you click on the “measuring pasta” tab, it tells you how to measure out a single serving of pasta based on the dry measurements.  I hate how every other website out there just tells you how much pasta you’ll have when it’s cooked.  Knowing that a serving is one cup of cooked pasta doesn’t help me much when I’m staring at a box of uncooked pasta.

If you make a big batch and have leftovers, note that this reheats fairly well (better than the creamier pastas), but you need to add a little water.

Another note – please use good Romano cheese.  It needs to be very finely grated – we’re talking powder, like that Parmesan/Romano cheese you get in a plastic canister.  But not that cheese.  Italian cooking is all about (relatively) simple dishes with high-quality ingredients, so splurge a little bit and get the good stuff.  This is still a cheap dinner.  The best cheese to use is the kind that’s been freshly grated by the store – so it’s not a “brand” cheese but comes in a little plastic container with the weight, the price per pound, and the price printed on it.   Or the block of Pecorino Romano, but that’s usually quite hard to find.  The very best cheese is the Pecorino Pepato, which has peppecorns in the cheese (oh my gosh, so tasty) – but you usually can only find this at a specialty cheese store or at a place like Whole Foods.

Last time I made this, I couldn’t find finely grated Romano cheese or a block of Romano cheese to grate myself.  I had to do my best with shredded cheese, which I put in the food processor for a solid two minutes to turn it into a powder.  It wasn’t quite as pretty, because the cheese didn’t get quite as fine and powdery, but it worked.

Cacio e Pepe

  • 1 serving of spaghetti (or 1 box), or any other basic pasta shape, really
  • 4 TBSP of finely grated Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Pepato cheese, divided (or 2 cups, divided), see note on what kind of Pecorino to use above
  • 1 scant tsp of extra-virgin olive oil (or 2 TBSP plus 2 tsp)
  • copious amounts of either medium-grind pepper or freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • dash of salt, optional

Fill a medium pot (or large pot if you’re making a big batch) with water and bring to a boil.  Add in a dash of salt and the pasta.

When the pasta has boiled about 8 to 9 minutes and is al dente, do not reach for your colander.  Instead, use the lid of the pot to help you drain the pasta.  This is difficult to describe in words, but it’s even trickier to photograph when you’re cooking alone.  Basically, you want to form a sort-of V with the pot lid and the pot, with the pot lid as the left part of the V, angled inward.  Hold the lid at that angle first, and then bring the pot toward the lid and angle it downward until a V forms (although the pot lid should extend below the edge of the pot), and the water starts to pour out.  The pot lid shields the pasta from falling out of the pot with the water.  Keep doing this until you barely have any water left in the pot but the pasta’s still sort of wet looking.  There should only be a bit of water left – not enough for any big puddles at the bottom.  Pasta hides water, so even if it barely looks like there’s water left, there is.  Sorry there aren’t pictures of this, but when I make only a small amount of this, it’s usually for me and there’s no one else around.

If you’re making multiple servings and using a big pot, there’s also this method, which I won’t even begin to try to describe – it’s the beloved carnivore method:

Those are not my arms.

An alternate method is to reserve some of the pasta water with a measuring cup, drain, and then return some small portion of the pasta water (a very scant 1/4 cup per serving) to the pot.  But why get your colander dirty?  I’m too lazy for that.

Add in 2 tablespoons of the cheese, one tablespoon at a time, tossing well after each addition with a pasta server (the thing that looks like this), instead of a wooden spoon, so that the cheese won’t clump together as much.  Add in the olive oil and tons and tons of pepper.  We’re talking at least 6 shakes of the pepper jar – you want this to have bite.  Add in another tablespoon of the cheese and stir well.

Pour the pasta into a bowl.  Top with the remaining tablespoon of cheese and enjoy!

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