Here are your tools–black pepper, spaghetti, water, salt, butter and cheese–now make something delicious. Ok? Go.
Maybe it’s because these ingredients are so unglamorous that I shied away from spaghetti cacio e pepe for so long. Sure, it’s a classic Italian spaghetti dish, but I’ve always favored the ones with garlic and anchovies (see my Weary Traveler’s Spaghetti, for example) over this one made with cheese and black pepper, regardless of how much my friends rave over it.
But then I watched this video on the new BonAppetit.com:
That there is Mark Ladner, New York’s only 4-star Italian chef. And in case you can’t watch this video at work, his technique for making cacio e pepe is so fascinating, I knew i had to try it.
Essentially, he starts by boiling water and salting it. Ok, nothing so fascinating there, but then he takes ground up peppercorns, adds them to a skillet and heats them so they release their essential oils. Fascinating!
Then, after dropping spaghetti into the water, he adds hot pasta water to that pan with the peppercorns. Then he adds butter to it and makes a sauce. When the spaghetti’s done he cooks it all together and adds cheese. The end result looks sublime.
And, indeed, when I made it, I couldn’t believe how saucy that end sauce was. Maybe it’s the magic combination of butter and starchy pasta cooking water (I usually use olive oil when I make pasta), but by the time everything was coated, and fused together with cheese, the sauce was thick and emulsified and clung gorgeously to the pasta. Eating it was both decadent, with all that creamy, buttery sauce, and exciting with all the heat from the peppercorns.
Who knew that a few simple ingredients brought together in such a simple way could make for such fireworks at the dinner table? Mark Ladner knew! Here’s my riff on his recipe.
Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe
based on a recipe by Mark Ladner
Serves 2 to 4
1 pound dried spaghetti
8 to 10 peppercorns, ground coarsely (I use my coffee grinder):
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated cheese (any combination of Parmesan, Pecorino or Grana Padano) plus more for sprinkling on top
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (for spaghetti, I use my Dutch oven, because it holds it perfectly) and salt it aggressively until it tastes like sea water.
2. Drop in your spaghetti and allow it to return to the boil.
3. Five minutes into cooking your spaghetti, pour the pepper into a skillet and start heating it on medium heat:
You’ll be surprised at how fragrant it becomes (the smell reminded me of patchouli!)
4. When the peppercorns have heated for a minute, carefully add a ladleful of pasta cooking water. Step back when you do this: breathing in a cloud of pepper steam may cause a seizure. Also, it’s going to make a loud sizzle, don’t be scared.
Allow that to cook down for a second:
And then add your butter:
Stir that in. Doesn’t it look like a weather system?
Maintain the sauce at a gentle simmer and if the pan gets too dry, ladle in pasta cooking water. You want a solid layer of liquid before adding your spaghetti.
5. At this point, taste your spaghetti. It should be just short of done (you still want it al dente.) When it’s just there, use tongs to lift it into the pan with the pepper/butter sauce:
6. Turn up the heat and stir and toss with tongs until all the pasta is coated and almost all of the liquid is gone. If there’s not enough liquid when you start, add another ladleful of pasta cooking water:
7. When the pasta’s properly coated, take the pan off the heat and add your cheese:
Stir that in and taste for balance. Serve right away with a good Italian red wine. To quote the magazine this came from, bon appetit!