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Spaghetti with Pecorino and Pepper

MAC AND CHEESE FOR GROWN-UPS—THANK YOU, ITALY

We love macaroni and cheese, but even the best versions don’t really put the marquee ingredients in the spotlight. The milky sauce (our recipe starts with 5 cups of milk) is the true star of American-style macaroni and cheese.

Perhaps that’s why the Roman specialty pasta alla cacio e pepe is such a revelation. Like the best Italian cooking, this dish is a study in minimalism—all you taste is spaghetti and Pecorino cheese, with a strong punch of freshly ground pepper in the background. This dish reminds us that sometimes less truly is more.

In Rome, cacio e pepe is a late night favorite because it’s so fast and so satisfying. You don’t even dirty a second saucepan or skillet because the cooked pasta is tossed directly with sauce ingredients.

But with something so simple there’s no room for error, and this dish can be a disappointment. Instead of producing pasta tossed in a silky smooth sauce, sometimes the cheese doesn’t melt, and instead clumps into unappealing strings that stick to the tongs. But the solution to this problem can be found in the pasta pot—literally.

Along with the cheese, the pasta cooking water is the main ingredient in the sauce. It turns out that upping the starch content of this water is the key to creating a smooth sauce. That means cooking the pasta in far less water than usual. Yes, you need to stir the pasta vigilantly to prevent it from sticking. But in addition to producing a super-starchy base for the cheese sauce, using less water cuts the waiting time for the pot to boil so you can enjoy this grown-up pasta with cheese that much sooner.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS

Start with Good Cheese

Imported Pecorino Romano is a hard, aged sheep’s milk cheese with a distinctively pungent, salty flavor that bears almost no resemblance to domestic cheeses simply labeled “Romano.” These wan stand-ins are made with cow’s milk and lack the punch of the real deal.

Pay Attention to Starch

Even when finely grated, cheese can still clump. Starch helps. In a hard lump of Pecorino, the fat, protein, and water (the three main components of cheese) are locked into position by the solid structure of the cheese. But when the cheese is heated, the proteins can fuse together. The starch from the semolina-infused pasta water, however, coats the cheese and prevents the proteins from sticking. Make sure to use the correct amount of water for your pasta: 2 quarts of water for a pound of pasta, rather than the usual 4 quarts. This volume will yield the optimal concentration of starch in the liquid.

Cream Helps, Too

Starch on its own can’t completely prevent the cheese from clumping. But there is another factor that affects how proteins and fat interact: emulsifiers. Milk, cream, and fresh cheeses have special molecules called lipoproteins that can associate with both fat and protein, acting as a sort of liaison between the two and keeping them from separating. But as cheese ages, the lipoproteins break down, losing their emulsifying power. No wonder Pecorino Romano, aged for at least eight months, forms clumps. How to get an infusion of lipoproteins? Add milk or cream. When we replace the traditional butter with the same amount of cream, the cheese forms a light, perfectly smooth sauce that coats the spaghetti.

Finish with More Cheese

For this dish, you can’t have too much of a good thing, so pass coarsely grated cheese at the table—the contrast of creamy pasta and pungent shards of cheese is a delight.

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Starchy water from cooking the pasta turns grated cheese into a creamy sauce.

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Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper

SERVES 4 TO 6

RECIPE DETAILS

Timeline

  • 10 minutes to grate cheese and heat water
  • 10 minutes to cook pasta
  • 2 to 3 minutes to sauce pasta

Essential Tools

  • Box grater (Use the small holes to grate cheese fine and the large holes to grate cheese coarse.)
  • 2-cup liquid measuring cup for reserving pasta water
  • Whisk

Substitutions & Variations

  • For a slightly less rich dish, substitute half-and-half for the heavy cream.
  • If you prefer to grind the cheese fine in a food processor, cut the Pecorino into 2-inch pieces and process until finely ground, about 45 seconds. You will still need to grate the remaining cheese by hand—a food processor doesn’t do “coarse.”

High-quality ingredients are essential in this dish; most importantly, imported Pecorino Romano. Do not adjust the amount of water for cooking the pasta; the amount used is critical to the success of the recipe. Make sure to stir the pasta frequently while cooking so that it doesn’t stick to the pot. Draining the pasta water into the serving bowl warms the bowl and helps keep the dish hot until it is served. Letting the dish rest briefly before serving allows the flavors to develop and the sauce to thicken.

  • 6 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, 4 ounces grated fine (2 cups) and 2 ounces grated coarse (1 cup)
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1½ teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons pepper
  1. Place finely grated Pecorino in medium bowl. Set colander in large bowl.
  2. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add pasta and salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain pasta into prepared colander, reserving cooking water. Pour 1½ cups cooking water into 2-cup liquid measuring cup and discard remainder. Return drained pasta to now-empty bowl.
  3. Slowly whisk 1 cup reserved cooking water into finely grated Pecorino until smooth, then whisk in heavy cream, oil, and pepper. Gradually pour cheese mixture over pasta and toss to combine. Let pasta rest for 1 to 2 minutes, tossing frequently and adding remaining cooking water as needed to adjust consistency. Serve, passing coarsely grated Pecorino separately.

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