"beautiful in its three-ingredient simplicity, cheap and quick to put together – but very easy to get wrong." Felicity Cloake - The Guardian
Now where have I heard those words before?
But don't be put off. This is a truly delicious dish. I had some in Rome - it's place of origin - in one of those buzzy places in Trastavere. You would think such a simple mix of three ingredients - spaghetti, black pepper and pecorino romano cheese - would be boring. But no it isn't. I don't actually think I have tried cooking it myself but I really must, although I have been slightly put off by Felicity Cloake's and Rachel Roddy's comments about the many mistakes that can be made along the way.
It is a very ancient dish - invented by shepherds, who took some pepper and pasta up into the hills with their sheep. Up there they made cheese from the sheep's milk and added it to the pasta. And telling this story makes me fear that I have done this before. It seems familiar. So apologies if I have. The pictures and the articles don't ring bells though, so maybe not.
Felicity Cloake does her usual analysis of the best ways of cooking the dish, pointing out the stumbling blocks along the line:
"there is a fine line between clump and cream, and making a smooth sauce from dry cheese and water is a skill that needs to be learned, as I realised on my first, second and seventh attempts. Once you’ve mastered it, however, cacio e pepe is a dish for life; one that can be knocked up in minutes with the most basic of store cupboard ingredients. So, don’t hate it because it’s hip, make it because it’s good."
The recipe that she gives at the end of her article is probably the best place to start.
So where are the stumbling blocks and arguments? Arguments first. The main one being whether you add any oil, butter or even cream to the mix. The purists, and ultimately Felicity Cloake, say no, no, no. The reason they have been added by some is to make the emulsification of the sauce clinging to the spaghetti easier, but I suspect it's not really that hard and the general opinion is that it detracts from the pure taste of the cheese and pepper.
"The salty, sticky tumble of carbs with a backburner of heat is one of food's great unions." Gemima Cody - Good Food
The next, rather more minor argument is whether you should toast or fry the black pepper before crushing it. Well I think that is probably a matter of taste - and time - not that much is involved. Felicity thought that toasting the pepper did bring out the spiciness more, but really I think that's a completely personal thing. How much pepper, and how much cheese is also really a personal thing. The final matter for dispute is what cheese? Well almost unanimously the answer is pecorino although some add a little Parmesan of grana Padano to the mix, and I guess if you can't get pecorino then they will do. But grate it finely. There is agreement on that.
So what are the problems? Well the main problem is getting it all to mix together without splitting and the majority opinion on how to avoid this was to not have the water too hot. Felicity Cloake ultimately decided that the best thing was to remove some of the pasta water halfway through the cooking so that it was not too hot when mixed with the cheese. Then just before you add the spaghetti to the bowl you mix your now warm rather than hot water with the cheese and pepper to make a smooth mixture and then add the spaghetti. Mix vigorously with a fork to coat the spaghetti adding more water if needed, and dust with more cheese and pepper to finish.
And I forgot to mention the other argument. What kind of pasta? Well traditionally it is tonnarelli, which is a kind of spaghetti, but a bit thicker and a square shape rather than round as shown here. Hard to find here, but you may find spaghetti alla chittara in a more specialist shop. But spaghetti will do. However, it's really suited to long kinds of pasta not the shorter stuff.
So give it a try sometime. And if you don't succeed at first then try again:
"Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. ...
with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. " Rachel Roddy
I gather the dish took New York by storm some years ago. The Americans refer to it as a kind of spaghetti mac'n cheese, but then they would try and Americanise it wouldn't they? According to The Age's Good Food it has also become popular here in Melbourne, but I'm not sure I have seen it on Italian restaurant menus yet. Maybe I don't go to the right ones.
People have messed with it a bit because they find it a bit plain - and have added things like spinach and/or kale, or roast vegetables or bacon. But to me that just makes it something different. I did see one version which included truffles, though I think the truffles were actually in the pasta and not the sauce. I think that might just pass as an option. First find your truffled pasta though.
And by the way wholegrain pasta was not recommended.
Why am I thinking about this? Well I'm desperate to have some kind of gift for my younger pasta loving son, so I thought I would put together a cacio e pepe package. I don't think he knows this one. We can buy large chunks of real pecorino Romano here in Eltham, and I found some classier Italian spaghetti in Woolworths - it was even on a special. I wonder if you can try it with other kinds of pepper - green peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns? Mm, maybe, maybe not.
So there you go - one more example of two or three ingredients that combined are sheer genius, although it might not be quite as simple as it seems.
"Cheese, pasta and pepper; really, it’s hard to go wrong." Felicity Cloake