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Mucho Gusto

Maya’s Cacio e Pepe Pasta

This is the forty-sixth installment in Mucho Gusto, a recipe initiative by and for students to help connect us through food in times of isolation. If you’ve got a recipe you think would make a great addition, reach out to us!

Loved by kids and adults alike, buttered noodles are a timeless, homey classic. From the gooey, melty cheese to the perfectly cooked pasta, this simple dish is the perfect comfort food for all. I mean, who doesn’t love cheesy, buttery pasta?

It is no wonder why there are many versions of this iconic dish in different cultures. Coming from an Italian family, cacio e pepe is what my family likes to call our preferred version of buttered noodles. Whether we are in a rush or sitting down for a Sunday night pasta dinner party with the whole family, cacio e pepe is a tasty, satiating dish that we always welcome. I remember my excitement when my Nonna would whip up this decadent meal for me after a busy day of playing outside and helping my Nonno in his vegetable garden in the backyard. This dish also brings up fond childhood memories for my dad—he recalls coming home from school and seeing his favorite warm meal prepared with love by his mom, waiting on the kitchen table, ready to be enjoyed. This dish is a nostalgic staple for generations in our family, like in most Italian households. It is simple enough for a kid’s pallet but is still rich, savory, and satisfying every time—perhaps some would even say, the culinary equivalent of a warm hug from a loved one. 

Cacio e Pepe is similar to pasta in Bianco or buttered noodles. It is an ancient Italian dish dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. Legend has it that this recipe started as an easy, practical food for the shepherds because it was durable,  easy to carry, did not take long to prepare, and did not spoil quickly. As the name, which translates to “cheese and pepper,” implies, cacio e pepe is a simple dish. With just two main ingredients prepared carefully with the right cooking technique make this dish so delicious. While the recipe can vary from region to region, I’m sharing my dad’s recipe, which he learned from his northern Italian parents. No matter which recipe you follow, high-quality Italian ingredients are a must. Authentic to the style of the Romans, an abundance of freshly ground black pepper and imported grated cheese are critical to achieving the great flavor. Together, with the pepper, cheese, and pasta, the high-quality elements with bold flavors combine to form a harmonious, hearty meal. 

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb of pasta, any of your choosing
  • ½ – ¾ stick of butter
  • 2 cups of pasta water
  • Approximately ½ cup 2% milk
  • Approximately ½ cup cheese, freshly grated, as desired
  • Salt and pepper, to taste, but heavy on the pepper

**It is also important to have a large, heavy saucepan for the best results; it will distribute heat gradually and evenly without burning the ingredients. 

Directions: 

Start by boiling a pot of water over medium heat. The water should be well salted, with at least one teaspoon. Once the water is boiling, add your pasta of choice. A rough-surfaced pasta is more desirable, as it can hold more of the sauce, but any type works for this versatile dish. Traditionally, tonnarelli is used, but long spaghetti works well too. Bow ties and shells can also be good for adhering to the smooth, creamy sauce. Cook the pasta over medium heat for approximately 6 minutes. Be sure to not overcook the pasta—you want it to be al dente, so it is okay to turn the heat off a bit prematurely while it still feels a bit hard. It should have a tender “bite” or snap when you are trying it. Once the pasta is cooked to perfection, set the pasta aside and save at least two cups of the pasta water. 

In your heavy saucepan, prepare the sauce—the star of the dish. Start by cutting the butter into chunks and placing the pieces in the saucepan under low heat. You do not want the butter to burn or brown the butter—just lightly melt it.  Add the pepper to the butter as it melts. Next, add the milk. Finally, add the cheese. Emulsify it slowly with a couple of ladles of pasta water, and mix it all together. Be careful when adding the milk to the sauce as it can easily overheat and curdle, causing the fats to separate from the water. Use this technique when making the sauce so that it becomes silky and smooth and has the proper consistency: Have the heat on a light simmer and gently stir the components together. Then, slowly add some high-quality grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. 

Once the sauce is light yet rich, it is ready. Turn off the heat, add the pasta to the sauce, and toss.  Make sure to evenly coat the pasta. You can vary the ratios of cheese and pepper to your liking, but be sure to finish off the dish with lots of black pepper for serving; it should be visibly seen in the pasta. Ѐ finito! Buon appetito! 

This recipe feeds about 4-6 people. 

Photo courtesy of people.com

One reply on “Maya’s Cacio e Pepe Pasta”

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