Have you heard of Cacio e Pepe? Other than not really knowing how to pronounce it, it’s also a dish that, strangely, until now, I’ve never been able to prepare it successfully.
I say that’s strange because it’s the simplest of simple pasta dishes, supposedly. Spaghetti noodles tossed with Pecorino Romano, black pepper, and a little pasta water. That’s it. And it’s heaven. I’ve enjoyed it when prepared elsewhere by people who know more than me, and it’s just absolutely perfect.
Anyway, I figured it out, and I feel like a total dork. The cheese should be grated, not shredded. As in, grated on a very very fine grater so that it’s pretty much pulverized, or bought like that in a tub at the store. That’s it. So instead of the cheese evenly disbursing itself throughout the pasta, my freshly shredded cheese would clump together in a big, giant mess. It’d taste okay, but it definitely didn’t look right. And the dishes were h-e-double-hockeysticks to clean.
Yup. Grated cheese. That’s it.
So basically, I solved my Cacio e Pepe mystery when developing this dish, which is a tiny bit more complex, but not by much. I add nutty browned butter and Parmesan instead of Pecorino Romano. Not only does it work perfectly, it’s also utterly delicious in its simplicity.
Sometimes I like to throw a smattering of fresh basil in and/or top my portion with halved cherry tomatoes and sometimes I top my guy’s portion with chopped cooked bacon. It’s also pretty awesome as-is.
Either way, it’s on the table in 20 minutes from start to finish, and it is so, so good. Spaghetti noodles cooked perfectly al dente, salty Parmesan cheese, cracked black pepper, and that distinctly rich and aromatic quality that only brown butter lends to a dish.
Cheesy, easy heaven.
- 4 tablespoons butter (I use unsalted, but salted is also fine)
- ½ pound (8 ounces) spaghetti noodles
- ¼ cup pasta water + more if necessary (don’t throw it out!)
- ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese (not shredded) + more for topping if desired
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Recommended (but optional) toppings for a little variation: fresh chopped basil, cooked chopped bacon, halved cherry tomatoes
- In a small, thick-bottomed pan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Continue cooking the butter over medium heat, whisking frequently, until the foam subsides and the butter begins to turn brown and smell nutty, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat immediately and set aside. Note: It is really easy to burn brown butter, so watch it carefully. It turns brown really fast (and can also burn really fast!)
- Meanwhile, set a large pot of water to boil. Cook the pasta to al dente per package instructions.
- Using tongs, lift the cooked spaghetti noodles out of the water and place in a large pasta bowl. You can drain the noodles in a colander, too, but remember to reserve some of the pasta water! It’s crucial for this recipe.
- Pour the browned butter and ¼ cup of the pasta water over the noodles. Sprinkle with Parmesan and add a few turns of freshly ground black pepper. Using the tongs, toss well until all ingredients are incorporated and have mixed to coat the noodles with an almost creamy sauce. Add more pasta water – a couple of tablespoons at a time – if necessary to achieve this.
- Top with additional Parmesan cheese if desired. Serve immediately. Top individual portions with basil, bacon, or cherry tomatoes, if desired.