Great minds clearly think alike, as my fellow Cucina Conversation bloggers and I have chosen cibo da conforto -- comfort food! -- as the theme for January and our first posts of 2017. My contribution for this month is tonnarelli cacio e pepe, one of the four classic Roman pastas (amatriciana, gricia, and carbonara round out the group). It's a simple dish, consisting of pasta -- spaghetti or tonnarelli, usually -- along with a good dose of freshly cracked black pepper and a whole lot of Pecorino Romano (sheeps-milk) cheese, all held together with a bit of the starchy water the pasta boils in. It's warming, stick-to-your-ribs kind of fair, Italy's version of macaroni cheese, or rather, all-American macaroni and cheese after spending a year studying abroad in Rome.
So! You'd think that I'd have shared a recipe by now for such an classic Roman dish, especially one that I love as much as cacio e pepe (for the record: my favorite comes from Flavio ve l'avevo detto in the Testaccio neighborhood). Here's the thing, though: cacio e pepe used to intimidate me a little bit. Oh, it may have seemed like a basic, straightforward dish, but with only 3 main ingredients, there's not much room for error, not to mention the technique involved in creating that iconic, cheese-y sauce seemed tricky. One false move, I thought, and a plate of what should be creamy, silky cacio e pepe could end up as pasta in a thin, watery sort of sauce, or one with cheese that sticks together instead of coating the strands of pasta evenly. Let me put it this way: if the Computer Science 101 course I took in college taught me one thing, it was that its best not to underestimate things that seem simple at first glance (as it turned out, the course wasn't just about fonts, typing, and using the internet as the 101 level had me think!!) Would I get a C in cacio e pepe just like Comp Sci?!
For a foolproof cacio e pepe, I knew I could rely on Rachel Eats, the blog run by Rachel Roddy. Rachel is an expat living here in Rome who is so well-versed in Roman food, she could teach an Italian nonna a thing or two -- indeed, she has even published her own cookbook, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. Turns out, I needn't have worried. Using her recipe, the sauce came together almost instantly (phew) resulting in "Probably the best cacio e pepe I've ever had," or so said my sister, as she dove into what turned out to be a plate of deliciously tangled tonnarelli, dressed to the nines in a luscious, cheese-y sauce whose richness was interrupted only by the underlying heat of the black pepper. It was cacio e pepe as cacio e pepe should be, and I thought -- not to pat myself too much on the back here or anything -- that if cacio e pepe had been a college course, I'd probably have received an A+ on the final project. Make this and you will too!
A couple of notes: The cheese here must be very finely grated, as it needs to melt in to the sauce -- using a large grate for the cheese will make for a not-so-smooth cacio e pepe. Use a microplaner or the smallest grate on your cheese grater. Don't substitute Parmesan for the Pecorino!! -- it's not the same thing, and cacio e pepe without Pecorino romano is no longer cacio e pepe. You could substitute dried spaghetti (or any long pasta) for the fresh tonnarelli -- aim to use about 100 grams per person. I like the addition of the olive oil -- it gives the sauce a nice silkiness -- but it's not mandatory, so feel free to leave it out. In her recipe, Rachel toasts whole peppercorns in a pan on the stove to release their peppery oils, then crushes them in a mortar and pestle. I didn't have a mortar and pestle handy so I just used freshly ground pepper, but feel free to toast and grind the peppercorns yourself if you wish. Finally, the recipe as written here is for two people (my sister and I) but feel free to up the quantities if you're feeding a bigger group.
With no further ado, here are the other cozy Italian recipes from my Cucina Conversation bloggers!
Rosemarie over at Turin Mamma has prepared frittura dolce (deep-fried semolina squares);
Daniela of La Dani Gourmet is sharing her recipe for gnocchi di patate al pomodoro (gnocchi in a tomato sauce!);
Lisa aka Italian Kiwi has made one of my very favorites, pasta e fagioli, or a pasta and bean soup;
Carmen at The Heirloom Chronicles has chosen scaccia di mulinciane (savory eggplant pies from Sicily) as her recipe;
Flavia from Flavia's Flavors is sharing polenta with beef short rib ragù;
Last but not least Marialuisa over at Marmellata di Cipolle has made pasta in brodaccia (pasta in a simple broth with tomatoes, celery, and potatoes).
8 ounces (250 grams) fresh tonnarelli
1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese (80 grams) plus more for serving
1 tablespoon good extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Extra black pepper and Pecorino cheese, for serving
Put a large pot of water on to a boil. While the water boils, grate the cheese. Side note -- if you're using measuring cups instead of a scale, I find it's helpful to grate the cheese on to a paper towel to be able to easily pour it into the 1 cup measure.
Add the pasta to the water/oil mixture and toss to combine. Next, add the cheese a little at a time, tossing and beating it together with the water and oil until a sauce starts to form (you can use a fork for this, I used the below pasta fork/tosser).
Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper and continue tossing and beating. At this point, check your sauce – if it looks too watery, add some extra cheese, and if it looks too dry, add some reserved pasta water. I found that with the above quantities my sauce was spot on, but always good to check and adjust accordingly.
Divide the pasta between plates, garnish with a grind or two more of black pepper and sprinkling more of Pecorino and serve immediately. Serves 2.