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Rachel Roddy’s recipe for pasta cacio e pepe | A kitchen in Rome

A culinary eureka: Rachel Roddy’s cacio e pepe.
A culinary eureka: Rachel Roddy’s cacio e pepe. Photograph: Rachel Roddy for the Guardian

Of all the classic Roman pasta dishes, cacio e pepe was the one I tasted first – and still the one I like best. It has just three ingredients: pasta, cacio (aka pecorino romano) and freshly cracked black pepper. In cooking, though, the pasta creates another ingredient: the cloudy cooking water slightly thickened with starch that has seeped from the pasta as it boils. This cooking water is a sort of culinary negotiator, melting and then emulsifying the cheese into rich, creamy sauce on the strands of pasta.

Unsurprisingly, there are as many ways and opinions about how best to make a cacio e pepe as there are cooks. Some like to add a little olive oil; others have ways with double boilers and grated ice, which, as far as I can see, require the almost gloopy starchy water of a trattoria pasta cooker and the wrists of a chef. But one thing people seem to agree on is that the enemy of cacio e pepe is chilly china – that is, cold plates – which can make the cheese clump into almost plasticine-like blobs from which there is no coming back. Happily, it is an enemy easily overcome by warming the vessel in question. Most agree, too, that the smaller the quantity, the better the result. With this in mind, here are two ways to prepare two main-course portions of cacio e pepe.

For both methods, 300g of fresh tonnarelli or 220g dried spaghetti or bucatini are cooked and mixed with a generous 120g of grated pecorino and black pepper to taste (my taste being 12 grinds). Both begin by bringing a pan of well-salted water to a boil and adding the pasta, grating the cheese – ideally to a grainy texture on the unlovable but effective star-shaped holes of your box grater – and warming a bowl, which I do first by running it under the hot tap, then sitting it near the warm hob.

First way: pasta first. Once the pasta is al dente (tender but with bite), lift it from the pan directly into the warm bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve, so there’s still some residual water clinging to it. Keep the pasta cooking water.

Next, tip almost all the cheese on to the pasta, grate in the pepper and toss using a fork and spoon, lifting the wetter pasta from the bottom of the bowl up and over, then swirling together. You’ll see the cream forming as the cheese mixes with the watery pasta. If it doesn’t look slippery enough, add more water and toss again.

Second way: cheese first. While the pasta is boiling, put most of the grated cheese and plenty of pepper into the warm bowl, then, little by little, add enough water from the boiling pasta pan and mix until you have a paste the consistency of soft cream cheese. When the pasta is ready, lift it from the pan, with residual water clinging, and toss and swish. Add more water if you think it needs it – you will quickly learn the feel as the sauce forms.

When it works, cacio e pepe is a culinary eureka. The sharp and salty cheese, flecked with enough pepper to make the back of your throat feel warm, transforms into a soft coat. It is also a recipe that sums up the everyday genius of Roman cooking: a few ingredients put together cleverly to make a downright delicious dish that’s both bowl- and heart-warming.

This article titled "Rachel Roddy’s recipe for pasta cacio e pepe" was written by Rachel Roddy, for The Guardian on Tuesday 13 February 2018 12.00pm

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