The ultimate Roman midnight snack. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]
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If you were to watch a practiced hand make cacio e pepe, you might think the instructions were as simple as this: Cook spaghetti and drain. Toss with olive oil, butter, black pepper, and grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Serve. But we all know that the simplest recipes can often be the most confounding, and so it is with cacio e pepe. Follow those instructions and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get what you’re after: a creamy, emulsified sauce that coats each strand of spaghetti with flavor. More likely, you’re gonna get what I (and, from the stories I’ve heard, many others as well) got on the first few tries—spaghetti in a thin, greasy sauce, or spaghetti with clumps of cheese that refuse to melt. Or, worse, both at the same time. Here’s how to make it perfectly every time.
Why It Works
- Using toasted and fresh black pepper doubles up on flavor, giving the dish more complexity.
- Grating the cheese very finely on a Microplane instead of shredding it helps it incorporate more smoothly.
- Finishing the pasta and cheese in a separate skillet ensures that the cheese doesn’t clump up from the residual heat in the pasta pan.
- Cooking the pasta in a skillet instead of a pot helps concentrate the starch in the water, making the sauce smoother.
- 4 tablespoons (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- Coarsely ground black pepper
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 pound (225g) spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons (30g) unsalted butter
- 2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese (about 1 cup; 55g), very finely grated on a Microplane or the smallest holes of a box grater, plus more for serving
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil and about a teaspoon of black pepper in a medium skillet over medium-low heat until ingredients are fragrant and pepper is barely starting to sizzle, about 1 minute. Set aside.
Place spaghetti in a large skillet and cover with water. Season with a small pinch of salt, then bring to a boil over high heat, prodding spaghetti occasionally with a fork or wooden spoon to prevent it from clumping. Cook until spaghetti is al dente (typically about 1 minute less than the package recommends). Transfer 2 to 3 tablespoons of pasta cooking water to the skillet with the olive oil/pepper mixture. Stir in butter. Using tongs, lift spaghetti and transfer it to the oil/butter mixture.
Add cheese and remaining tablespoon olive oil to the skillet and stir with a fork until cheese is completely melted. Add a few more tablespoons of pasta water to the skillet to adjust consistency, reheating as necessary until the sauce is creamy and coats each strand of spaghetti. Season to taste with salt and more black pepper. Serve immediately, passing extra grated cheese and black pepper at the table.
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