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Pasta, Caccio e Pepe

Pasta With Cheese And Black Pepper

I’m not a fan of eating large amounts of pasta on a regular basis. When in Italy – I’ve lived and traveled mainly in the north – I get served pasta in quite modest amounts as a separate course before the main. Maybe it’s different down south, but I think this is the healthier way to enjoy a bit of pasta now and then

If you think pasta with cheese and pepper doesn’t sound like anything to write home about, well, I’m happy to tell you that on this occasion you’d be wrong

One of the great features of Italian gastronomy is sophistication of technique within relative, sometimes great, simplicity of ingredients. This dish, from Rome’s Lazio region illustrates this perfectly

I’ve seen recipes adding grated cheese and a bit of pepper to a plate of cooked pasta, with predictably rather dry and uninspiring results. Others try to cheat with cream for that unctuousness. Really? No!

Caccio E Pepe is a simple marriage of cheese and pepper with very lightly salted pasta water turned creamy, velvety emulsion with rapture inducing results (if you’re into that kind of thing). Like its close relative Pasta Al Aglio, Olio E Peperoncino (pasta with garlic, oil and chilli) it’s devilishly tricky to achieve perfection, but not so hard to get decent results, as long as you understand the technique. The secret to creating that perfect EMULSION is to let your hands work briskly while you yourself remain cool (anyone for yoga?)

Technique Tutorial Summary

The pepper is just lightly crushed with a pestle, then delicately dry-roasted to release its perfume

Being a Roman dish, Pecorino is the cheese of choice, though you’ll get great results with Parmesan or any hard aged ewes’ or cow’s cheese. To the fairly salty cheese you’ll be adding a little of the “glutinous”, salty pasta water. This requires that you use

  1. half the usual amount of salt in the pasta water
  2. half the recommended amount of water to get that glutinous consistency

First time I made this I used too little water for the pasta and ended up with a delicious, but rather sticky result. Thus, I took to keeping a small saucepan of simmering water nearby, ready to come to the rescue. I rarely need it nowadays, but it helps me feel secure

The pepper is coarsely cracked in a mortar and pestle and dry toasted in a frying pan at medium heat until you can smell the aroma

Start cooking your pasta, and once the water starts to look gloopy, add a ladleful to the black pepper in its separate pan (this is where the magic will happen in the final  stage)

Put half of the cheese in a medium size bowl. A couple of minutes of lively bubbling later, add the pepper water to the cheese bowl, whisking vigorously to dissolve it into a thin creamy emulsion, then add the remaining cheese gradually while the mixture is still hot, whisking to create a thicker cream

The pasta is allowed to just 3/4 cook before being finished off in the secondary shallow pan along with a ladleful or two of pasta water and sautéed (tossed) while incorporating the caccio-pepe emulsion in stages until cooked to al dente in its velvety nectar

Have your table very close by and your guests ready to tuck in. This dish waits for no-one

Let’s cook!

Pasta, Caccio E Pepe
Pasta with cheese and black pepper from Italy's Lazio region. Two ingredients, one big dish
Prep Time 15 minutes
cheese grating time 5 minutes
Total Time 20 minutes
Course any
Cuisine Italian, Mediterranean
  • 1/2 -3/4 pounds tornarelli, spaghetti or macaroni I always use wholemeal
  • 1 cup freshly grated pecorino or parmigiano or your favourite aged HARD cheese
  • 15 black peppercorns
  • salt
grate the cheese
  • divide your grated cheese between two bowls
cook the pasta
  • follow the instructions on the packet using half the recommended amounts of salt and water
  • optionally boil some water in a small pan and have it simmering in case you run out of pasta water!
  • Cook the pasta till al dente but still a bit hard: you'll be stealing about 3-4 minutes from the recommended cooking time
prepare the pepper
  • while the pasta is cooking coarly crush the whole peppercorns in a mortar and pestle
  • when the pasta water starts to look gloopy put the crushed peppercorns in a dry large frying pan and toast on medium heat for a few seconds to just release the aromas
  • add a ladleful of pasta water to the pepper and cook on high heat for 2 minutes. This will release the pepper's aromatic oils into the water
emulsify the cheese, pepper and water
  • add the hot peppered water to half the cheese in a bowl, stirring vigiriusly to achieve a thin cream. While still hot add the relmaining cheese. If the resulting cream is too thick add spme more of the pasta water to achieve the consistency of thick double cream
finish the dish
  • transfer the pasta to the frying pan you used for the pepper along with a couple of ladle-fuls of pasta water
  • add the cheese-pepper emulsion in 3-4 stages, tossing the pasta contiuouslty. Add more pasta water to thin out if necessary and cook for 2-3 minutes until the pasta is cooked al dente and the emulsion is creamy and smooth. If if looks over sticky add a tiny bit more water, but careful!
  • Serve immediately
Keyword cheese, ova-lacto, pasta

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