It was on my second trip to Austin, almost 6 years ago, when my now husband JimmyChiv made us fresh pasta. He was showing off to impress me, of course, because he’s made it only once or twice since and only within the first few months of our reuniting after 30 years apart. He was trying to lure me back for good with fresh fettuccine tossed with mushrooms and marinara. That pasta machine sits high up on a shelf gathering dust now and while I haven’t tackled making fresh pasta yet myself (and I know I really should), I do make plenty of pasta dishes at home, usually with liberal amounts of cream in the sauce. I never tell him the cream is the secret to why my sauces are so good.
I always have enough ingredients on hand to make at least a few types of pasta dishes and recently I happened to have everything I needed to make one of my favorites, cacio e pepe. I had never made it from scratch before, but I had the butter, parmesan, pecorino, black pepper and dried spaghetti to whip it up for dinner.
I use a high end dried pasta or get a pack of fresh from the refrigerator case. It does make a difference in texture and it’s almost as good as your own fresh pasta. This simple dish deserves to be made with the best, despite it being a basic “peasant” dish from Rome and ubiquitous on menus there.
One of the keys to cacio e pepe is that some of hot cooking water is left with the pasta and the heat helps melt the cheese, the starches in the water binding the pepper and cheese to the pasta so it sticks and coats. I’ve also enjoyed this dish with variations in the kind of pepper used including pink and green peppercorns and additions have included shaved black truffle and various herbs like tarragon, basil and sage.
I added sliced mushrooms to the version I made for JimmyChiv, to great effect. He took a few bites,, looked up at me and asked, “What is this?” In my best Italian accent ( which is not at all good), I said “It’s cacio e pepe! Do you like it?” “Everything you make for us is better than anything we have in one of those expensive restaurants you make me go to but this is the best meal you’ve made yet!” What he didn’t realize is that cacio e pepe is essentially mac ‘h’ cheese, a dish he swears he hates because his mother made it far too much when he was a kid and according to legend, she wasn’t the greatest cook.
JimmyChiv made his fresh fettuccine to lure me back into his life (that’s not what did it), and I’m certainly going to keep making him food that shows him my love, too. The recipe I used is a variation on one from Bon Appetit magazine, although I’ve seen much the same recipe in quite a few books. Do try some variations on peppercorns, herbs and cheese, too, and luxe it up with black truffles when in season. I also offer you a great recipe for another classic Roman pasta dish, pasta alla gricia. My friend Jeannie sent me an article by former NYT food critic now NYT op-ed writer Frank Bruni a few months ago. He wrote an opinion piece about how he enjoyed the dish four nights in a row on a trip to Rome, tying that obsession to his need for constancy in his life thanks to our political turmoil. Bucatini, guanciale, pecorino -- just fat and salt brings about simple comfort. He offered up Mark Bittman’s great recipe which I’ve made aplenty, too, but not for JimmyChiv. This one has those crisp little bits of guanciale, and he’s a vegetarian.
Cacio e Pepe
For 2 Servings
6 oz. pasta (bucatini or spaghetti are good)
3 T. unsalted butter
1 t. Freshly cracked peppercorns
3/4 c. finely grated Parmesan or Grana Padano
1/3 c. finely grated Pecorino Romano
Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5 quart pot. Season with salt, then add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. I periodically snatch a strand from the pot to test. Drain but reserve 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook, swirling pan, until toasted, about 1 minute.
Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to skillet and simmer. Add pasta and the rest of the butter. . Reduce heat to low and add Grana Padano or Parmesan, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. Remove pan from heat. Add the Pecorino, stirring and tossing all the while until the cheese melts, the sauce coats the pasta, and the pasta is al dente. You might need to add more pasta water if the sauce seems too sticky or dry. Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.
Pasta alla gricia
8 oz. guanciale (cured pig’s jowl), cut into 1/4-inch pieces
½ t. finely ground black pepper, plus a pinch
¾ lb. spaghetti, bucatini or linguine
¼ cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
Cook the guanciale in a large skillet over medium heat until a deep gold color. Be sure to adjust the heat so you just render the fat, but don’t burn the meat. The meaty parts should be browned and the fatty parts should be cooked but still slightly transparent in about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the black pepper and turn off the heat when it’s done.
Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente and a little chalky in the middle.
When the guanciale has cooled a bit, and while the pasta is cooking, add 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the pan, turn the heat to high and reduce liquid by about half.
When the pasta is ready, use tongs to transfer it to the pan with the sauce without draining the whole pot. Stir the pasta adding more pasta cooking water if necessary until the pasta is done and the sauce thick and creamy. Add half the cheese and a pinch of pepper, and stir vigorously to finish incorporating.
Divide the pasta among four dishes, and sprinkle each with the remaining pecorino.
— Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Austin, TX. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com