Saturday, August 9, 2014

Italian Pasta Classics - Cacio e Pepe

For the latest edition of our recurring series of essential Italian Pasta recipes (check out the first and second installments here), we are making possibly the simplest and most purely satisfying dish of them all - one that hails from Lazio region where you find the Eternal City of Rome: Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe or Spaghetti with Cheese and Pepper. 
Cacio e Pepe, a simple comfort food for your Italian Table, Photo: NK
Rome is known for its often rich and decadent (yet simple) pastas. Other traditional sauce preparations include the ever-popular Amatriciana, Gricia, and perhaps the most well known of the bunch, Carbonara. We enjoyed them all immensely during our gorgeous family trip to Rome just last year. What I wouldn't give to relive that week right about now!

Luckily, another flavorful pasta from Italy's Lazio region is just minutes (and less than 4 ingredients) away. Cacio e Pepe is a comfort dish that is packed with flavor thanks to Pecorino (sheep's milk) Cheese and spicy and freshly crushed black Peppercorn. Think of it as a stripped down Carbonara. 

Crush the peppercorns right before cooking, Photo:NK

But first things first - It's important to note that true Cacio e Pepe will have absolutely no oil, butter, or milk. Then how do you achieve the creaminess that makes this dish so effortlessly decadent? It's all in the execution. 

For a few pointers on how to perfect this exquisitely simple, rustic plate, we turn to Lidia Bastianich, who is, in my mind, a trusted source for all things authentically Italian.

Image and below text courtesy of Lidia's Italy

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich
Serves 4 adults as an entree, 6 as an appetizer course

2 Cups of high quality Pecorino Romano Cheese (Lidia recommends a middle-aged Pecorino if possible, aged 8-10 months)-freshly grated from a wedge of cheese (usually at least 8-10 Ounces) plus more for garnish

2-4 teaspoons (by taste), Black Pepper. (Preferably whole Peppercorns crushed with a mortar and pestle or heavy object, or ground in a grinder). Of course, if you are pressed for time, pre-ground pepper is fine - the fresher the bottle the better. You can always add more pepper at the end - very peppery is a good thing! (Tip: I use a slightly lighter touch when serving kids but then add extra pepper to mine once it's on the plate.)

1 Lb fine quality dry Spaghetti - De Cecco brand  - in my opinion - is the the best commercially available dry pasta out there
Salt  (I like finely ground sea salt or Himalayan Pink Salt if you have it - but regular table salt works just fine!

It's all in how you mix it, Photo: NK

1. Prepare all your ingredients while water is boiling or before - crush the Pepper, grate the Pecorino, find your heatproof bowl, set out your Salt.

2. Set a pot of well salted water to boil.

3. Cook Spaghetti according to package directions, making sure it's al dente.
As pasta comes close to cooking, warm a large and heavy heat proof bowl. You can do this by ladling some hot pasta water into it and discarding just before you begin to use the bowl. Do not drain the pasta. 

4. Once Pasta is cooked (go for perfectly al dente, not more), use tongs to grasp it and transfer it to the warmed bowl, holding it over the pot to drain for a minute. 

5. Now, immediately add the grated Pecorino to the bowl right away, tossing the pasta quickly as you can, and continually sprinkle in the Pepper. As you toss using your tongs, add a tablespoonfuls of Pasta Water one at a time to moisten the Spaghetti and allow the Cheese to blend nicely. It should look a little creamy, not watery. Finally, add a big pinch of salt and give it a toss. Taste and add a little more if needed. To serve, you can grate a little extra cheese on top if you like and place more Pepper on the table as well. Serve immediately and very hot.
Buon appetito! 

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