Cacio e Pepe (An Authentic Roman Excuse To Eat Pasta & Cheese)
I loves me some pasta and cheese. I try to avoid eating it most of the time as there is nothing healthy about eating a vast quantity of pasta (it must be vast), laden with lovely oozy cheese, butter and several grinds of black pepper.
Mmmmm oozy cheese… But I digress.
So I don’t eat this very often anymore and try to go for more vegetable-laden alternatives, but my recent visit to Rome was an excuse to indulge my love of this base, but extremely satisfying, dish. Here, pasta and cheese is elevated to the position of ‘regional speciality’ – cacio e pepe.
Consisting entirely of pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper and starchy pasta water, this very simple pasta sauce demands fresh, handmade pasta. One of my favourite things about casual eating in Rome was that almost every single restaurant served fresh, handmade, egg pasta. It’s so much nicer! And healthier! On such a vehicle, a simple sauce shines.
It might be a bit awkward to haul out the pasta machine, but it’s a skill like any other in the world, that becomes easier and faster the more you do it. And it’s messy. And fun.
By the way, if you’re looking for another use for your pasta machine, this is it: handmade filo pastry put through a pasta machine is a revelation.
I have never really understood why people want to speed up the process of cooking. For me, although I truly love eating fantastic food as often as humanly possible, I enjoy the process of making it even more.
Wandering around the shops collecting fresh, exciting, delectable ingredients. Organising my work area and collecting together my tools. Chopping, crushing, grinding, heating, drizzling… Transforming a wide range of different colours and textures into one unified, scrumptious whole.
Experiencing life completely in the moment, crafting something with my two hands (and a couple of food processors). One of the reasons I started cooking was to keep myself away from the television. It was a great swap.
Considering black pepper is central to one of Rome’s key regional dishes, I was shocked to find a widespread ambivalence in Rome to the joys of freshly ground black pepper. For twenty-one days there I divided my day-times between two professional kitchens and my night-times between all the area’s restaurants. Not once did I see a pepper grinder.
How can this be? The idea that almost all food is improved with a grind or twenty of black pepper is a foodie notion that is fully ingrained in my psyche. As is the notion that this behaviour was imported straight from Italy. Wasn’t it? Can any Italians shed some light on this issue? I am baffled.
Although this dish traditionally uses tonnarelli pasta, I made tagliatelle because I thought it would be easier to make by hand. I do have attachments for this kind of pasta for my machine, but they were packed away somewhere (in another country I think!), so I used this hand-cut method instead.
You may be wondering if you really need a pasta machine to make pasta and although I have made pasta using only a rolling pin before, it wasn’t that great. No matter how thin I thought I had rolled it, it always came out too thick and tough. I also think the process of kneading the pasta by folding and running it through the machine several times on the first setting is key to a toothsome texture.
So a pasta machine it is.
If you’re reluctant to spend your hard-earned money on such a piece of equipment, it may be good to know that they are always available in charity shops (thrift stores). Many, many people buy them but never use them (not you though!), so there are plenty of bargainous second-hand ones on offer.
After you have rolled out your pasta sheets (there’s a good tutorial on how to do this here), using semolina to make sure nothing sticks, you simply fold up the pasta and cut it into strips with a sharp knife.
I cut away the uneven edges before cutting my strips, but that is only because I wanted everything to be straight – the less OCD out there may be perfectly happy with slightly misshapen, but still perfectly delicious, pasta strips.
I rolled my pasta out very thinly, up to setting 7, but this was too thin really. The pasta still cooked and didn’t stick together horribly (which I had feared), but it was pretty fragile and a little difficult to toss in the sauce. Setting 5 would probably have been more appropriate.
Any pasta you have left over you can dry and keep for later (please see this article for a very detailed explanation about why this is perfectly safe, even though the pasta contains raw egg).
First, I laid out my leftover strips on a light dusting of semolina and let them dry a little (about 30 minutes) so they wouldn’t stick together, then I rolled them up and let them dry completely. They are much easier to store like this!
The recipe for the pasta below is lightly adapted from The Mozza Cookbook: Recipes from Los Angeles’s Favorite Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, by Nancy Silverton et al. I also have an adapted version of her pizza recipe on the site – see the post The Pizza Dough That Changed My Life. This recipe and method is somewhat more involved and expensive than others I have used, but I must say the pasta held together very well, even when rolled out so thinly. If you would prefer to use a more basic recipe, a simple formula of 100g flour to 1 egg is also fine (see recipe here).
The sauce recipe is taken from Cook’s Illustrated, the unparallelled US stalwart of thoroughly tested home cooking that I refer to constantly for advice on recipes, equipment and technique. I really wish we had something like it in Europe. Or that they listed their recipes with metric measurements!
Silky, cheesy, savoury, spicy, peppery, creamy… Yummy decadence, how I love you!
Please click to see the formatted, printable recipe on Ramsons & Bramble