February 18, 2019
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Cacio e Pepe Everything
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It all started with a Roman pasta dish, but now the minimalist flavor combination of grated Pecorino Romano and black pepper can be found in everything from chicharrones to shortbread cookies.

In early 2016, chef David Chang debuted a dish called ceci e pepe at his new Italian-Asian restaurant, Momofuku Nishi. His take on the popular Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe (literally “cheese and pepper”) replaced the traditional cacio with a fermented chickpea (ceci) paste that mimicked the original’s silky texture and savory, flinty flavor. Diners and critics flipped out over Chang’s culinary sleight of hand, and the dish remains a menu favorite at Nishi today.

While Chang’s variation on cacio e pepe is inspired and without question innovative, he is hardly alone in bending the rules of the traditional recipe. Over the past several years, cacio e pepe has joined the ranks of America’s starchy obsessions, and remixes of the ancient dish have only accelerated. Today home cooks can access countless articles, cookbooks, and instructional videos promising cacio e pepe perfection and are regularly greeted with sound recipes like Smitten Kitchen’s cacio e pepe potatoes anna (which merges the French layered potato cake with copious amounts of pecorino and black pepper), or the sweet-meets-savory cacio e pepe shortbread featured in Food52’s Genius Desserts cookbook.

In restaurants, meanwhile, chefs are increasingly turning out dishes like the cacio e pepe cauliflower at New York City’s Blenheim, the pan-fried cacio e pepe spaetzle at Wursthall in San Mateo, the cacio e pepe chicharrones at San Francisco’s True Laurel, and the cacio e pepe enoki mushrooms at Serpico in Philadelphia. It’s a lot of attention being paid to what is, essentially, a plate of cheesy noodles.

Like many classic Italian pastas, cacio e pepe’s provenance is murky. Some say it evolved centuries ago in the collective, uncredited nonna kitchen, while others claim it was a preferred dish of Lazio’s shepherds—since the ingredients were easily portable and quick to prepare. What’s clear is that the dish is regarded, as Mona Talbott writes in The Oxford Companion to Cheese, as “one of the sacrosanct pastas of Rome…one of its canonical dishes.”

The recipe is simple in theory—a shortlist of pantry ingredients. It consists of pasta (most often a long style, like tonnarelli, bucatini, or spaghetti), a pile of grated sheep’s-milk Pecorino Romano, and an assertive amount of crushed black pepper. Some contemporary cooks substitute Parmesan, but true cacio e pepe benefits from the way Pecorino’s bright salinity plays off the pepper’s tingle and subtle heat. Together, the ingredient trio melds into a creamy dream. But while anyone can make cacio e pepe, like a classic French omelet, perfecting the dish takes skill, patience, and a Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice. Or close.

To produce the ideal texture, the cheese, black pepper, and steaming noodles are anointed with a hearty splash of salted pasta cooking water (indeed, the dish almost single-handedly demonstrates the importance of reserving pasta water after draining) and then tossed quickly and confidently until the sauce emulsifies and clings to each strand. Too much water and you end up with a puddle of broken sauce. Toss too passively and the cheese contracts into unseemly clumps. But when everything comes together, a twirl of pure ambrosia awaits.

Cacio e pepe is currently enjoying a moment in the Italian capital as well. “It emerged from oblivion in the early part of this century,” says Maureen Fant, an Italian culinary historian who coauthored, among other books, Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way. According to Elizabeth Minchilli, the author of Eating Rome and the forthcoming The Italian Table, in the post–World War II era, humble family recipes fell to the wayside in favor of “fancier and richer” pasta dishes, like penne alla vodka and rigatoni alla norcina, which are made with cream. But in recent years, Romans have shifted back toward the homey foods of their past.

Roman restaurateurs also began to cater to tourists’ growing desire to eat authentic cacio e pepe at the source. Today the dish is virtually everywhere in Rome. “All of a sudden, all the even slightly foodie tourists were making the rounds of the better trattorias, comparing versions,” says Fant. “We Romans thought that was hysterically funny, that such a modest dish had become so important to people who had never heard of it till approximately the day before yesterday.”

Roman chefs have not experimented as robustly as their American counterparts with cacio e pepe’s applications as a flavoring. But some pizzerias employ the Pecorino-pepper combination as a topping for pizza or a filling for arancini.

At Serpico, chef Peter Serpico’s cacio e pepe enoki mushrooms were surprisingly not inspired by a memorable meal in a Roman restaurant, but by an enoki mushroom dish with egg yolk and sage he ate at Geist in Copenhagen. “It brought back memories of making cacio e pepe for my wife when she was pregnant with our daughter,” he said. His dish, which simmers the spaghetti-thin mushroom strands in Pecorino broth and drizzles them with black pepper oil, has the same flavor profile as cacio e pepe while remaining texturally light and delicate. Not surprisingly, he said, “Our guests love it—I don’t plan on taking it off the menu for a long time.”

For chefs and home cooks alike, adding a pat of butter to well-made cacio e pepe is unnecessary and generally frowned upon. But when it comes to creative applications, the cacio e pepe compound butter in Joshua McFadden’s cookbook Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables is one of the quickest and most satisfying ways to deliver the dish’s flavors to your mouth. McFadden suggests stirring the butter, which gets folded with grated Pecorino (and an unorthodox heap of Parmesan) and spiked with toasted peppercorns, into spring peas or mashed potatoes, or slicking it onto an omelet or steak.

Like other savory flavor obsessions of recent history (here’s looking at you, brown butter and truffle oil), cacio e pepe’s status is likely to flame brightly and then settle. But the dish itself, which perfectly captures the intersection of starch, umami, and heat, is timeless.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
  • ¾ cups finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • ¾ cups finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • ½ pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

Excerpted from Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2017.

The inspiration for this butter comes from the classic Roman pasta dish of spaghetti with Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper. I put those two ingredients—plus some Parmigiano to mellow the bite of the Pecorino a bit—into a butter, which you can keep in your fridge for weeks.

  1. Put the peppercorns in a small skillet and toast over medium heat, shaking the pan or stirring constantly to toast the pepper evenly, just until you begin to smell a black pepper perfume, 2 to 3 minutes, depending on your skillet. Pour the pepper into another container and let cool completely.
  2. Crack and grind the pepper, either in a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder you dedicate to spices) or with a mortar and pestle. It's nice to have uneven consistency, from fine to coarse.
  3. Fold the pepper and both cheeses into the butter with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and pile into whatever container you want to serve or save it in. Chill the butter for at least 1 hour to firm it up and to let the flavors marry and permeate the butter.

Ingredients

  • ½ cup plus 2 teaspoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, using the small holes of a box grater
  • ½ cup plus 2 teaspoons finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, using the small holes of a box grater
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup semolina flour
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

This is a shortbread cookie that doesn’t quite know if it’s sweet or savory, and in my experience, it doesn’t matter. Every time I set wedges of it out, I explain nothing—at first. Lurkers swarm and empty the plate, without stopping to wonder what genre of snack they’re eating.

The recipe comes from the mind of Charlotte Druckman, author of Stir, Sizzle, Bake, a cookbook full of novel ways to use your cast-iron skillet—including this borderline psychedelic one. Druckman was inspired by Blue Bottle Coffee pastry chef Caitlin Freeman’s shortbread dough–whipping technique and chef Mark Ladner’s feisty cacio e pepe; she wondered what would happen if she were to graft a pasta recipe onto a shortbread.

She worked in not only the cheeses (cacio) and the black pepper (pepe) but also dried pasta’s traditional semolina flour, which gives the shortbread a hint of warm, wheaty, pasta-like flavor, as well as a softness and a tight, fine-crumb structure. She then baked in one more round of crisp outer texture and toasty flavor by pressing the dough (carefully!) into a hot cast-iron skillet, brushing the top with olive oil, and sprinkling more pepper and cheese over it. Snack on it with your afternoon coffee or aperitifs—Prosecco, Bellinis, rosé, or whatever you like to drink at cocktail hour.

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F, with a 10-inch cast-iron skillet on the center rack. Stir together 2 teaspoons each of the Parmesan and Pecorino and 1 teaspoon of the pepper in a small bowl.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-low speed until it’s smooth, creamy, and fluffy, like cake frosting, about 1 minute. Add the sugar, salt, and the remaining 1 teaspoon of pepper and stir until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula as needed.
  3. Turn the speed to medium and mix until the mixture takes on a thick, creamy, almost mayonnaise-like texture, 4 to 5 minutes more. Add the flours and stir on low speed until just incorporated. Add the remaining 1⁄2 cup Parmesan and 1⁄2 cup Pecorino and mix on low for 1 minute. Scrape the dough together to form a ball.
  4. Take the hot skillet out of the oven and set it on the stovetop or other heat-safe surface. Brush the skillet with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil. Nudge the dough into the skillet and, using the spatula or your fingers (but being careful of the hot pan), flatten the dough into the skillet, pushing it out evenly to the edges. Brush with the remaining 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil. Sprinkle the dough with the cheese-pepper mixture and transfer back to the oven. (Don’t forget, the handle will still be hot!)
  5. Bake the shortbread until the edges begin to brown, 18 to 23 minutes. The middle should be cooked through but still a bit soft, as it will firm up as it cools. Set the pan on the stovetop or other heat-safe surface and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Using a plate, carefully invert the pan and flip the shortbread out, then flip it once more onto another plate so it’s right side up. Alternately, you can serve straight from the pan. Let cool completely.
  6. To serve, cut the shortbread into 10 to 12 wedges. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Leah Koenig

Leah Koenig is a writer and cookbook author who's work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Epicurious, Food52, and Tablet, among other publications. Her cookbook, Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books) was published in 2015 and featured in the Food52 Piglet book tournament. Her most recent book, Little Book of Jewish Appetizers (Chronicle) was published in August 2017. Leah lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3-year old.

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