Although cacio e pepe is merrily served all over Rome as a quick and easy dish, the technique for making it right is a little tricky. The key is to emulsify the cheese into a little bit of reserved starchy pasta cooking water so you get a creamy, luscious sauce that coats the pasta. Unfortunately, if you don’t get it right, the cheese clumps up, but the good news is that it’s still perfectly delicious if that happens.
I heard a lot of variations when trying to figure out how exactly to make this dish—most of which didn’t work. I made one with a slurry of cheese, fizzy water, and cracked black pepper that was supposed to sit in the bottom of the bowl so the hot pasta would melt the cheese to coat the pasta strands. It didn’t work. Butter is a common addition in American versions of the recipe, and while it might work, it’s not Roman.
After all my experiments, this recipe was the winner. Enjoy. —Sara Jenkins
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Cacio e Pepe
4 to 6
whole black peppercorns crushed in a mortar and pestle or 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
In a pot over low heat, heat the crushed peppercorn with the olive oil.
In a pot large enough to cook the spaghetti, bring water to a boil.
Turn the heat off under the olive oil and add about 1/2 cup of the hot cooking water from the pot into the pan, then set aside.
When the pasta water comes to a rolling boil, add the salt, stir, then add the spaghetti. Cook the spaghetti until 2 minutes under the lowest time recommended on the package. Using tongs (you don't want to get the rid of the water), add the pasta to the pot with the pepper. Turn the heat onto very low and turn the pasta continuously until most of the water is absorbed. At this point, remove from the heat and transfer to a warm bowl.
Still tossing, begin adding the two grated cheeses, a couple handfuls at a time. If it starts to get dry, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of pasta water. Keep turning and turning, adding cheese and pasta water, a little at a time, until all the cheese has been incorporated and you have a lovely creamy sauce coating each strand of pasta. Eat immediately.