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Cacio e Pepe and Homo Sapiens

April 22nd, 2010 · 6 Comments

Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) is the simplest of dishes: boil and drain pasta; mix in grated cheese, ground pepper, and a bit of the cooking water; and serve.  It’s a standard dish in Rome; traditionally, it’s made with pasta secca (usually spaghetti) and pecorino romano.

It’s not the most nutritious supper (I suggest a side of vegetables), but it’s quick and tasty.  It reminds me of Rome, a city I find endlessly fascinating (see earlier posts to track my Rome jones).  And its simplicity is appealing: it uses only three ingredients (four, if you count the water), and depends on their quality and proportion.

Most intriguing, though, is the fact that whenever I describe it to someone, he or she almost always tells me that I’m wrong.  My corrector has never heard of it, has never tasted it, but still insists that it needs oil, or sauce, or something, and that I must be in error.  And I always have to explain that I didn’t make it up, that generations of Romans have eaten it that way, and that it’s perfectly fine.  I point out that my corrector is free to make it differently, or add things — there are no cacio e pepe police — but that there is, in fact, nothing wrong with the old recipe — or even with adding cheese and pepper to spaghetti, whether it’s traditional or not.

It might make sense to sample something before finding fault with it.  But homo sapiens don’t work that way, do we?

(Posted by Doug Skinner) 

Tags: Belief Systems · Dietary Mores · Places

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // Apr 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    My attempts to concoct this dish always result in something mediocre. I would welcome sampling the results of a master cacio e peperisto.

  • 2 Angela // Apr 22, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Lisa, you probably need to add more pepper. The first time I saw Doug prepare this I was was pretty amazed as he continued to add pepper to the cheese, but the cheese is really salty so the huge quantity of pepper works nicely. I’ve made this myself several times and LOVE it. It’s essentially a less creamy version of mac n cheese with a little pepper kick. I suggest using dry whole wheat spaghettini for the pasta and I like to add olives. Doug is indeed the master of this dish. I may have to have this tonight.

  • 3 Doug // Apr 22, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    You do need that pepper! And you need to mix that hot water in well, so the cheese and pepper melt together to make a kind of sauce. And I’ve tried using fresh pasta, but it does work better with dried. (Rome is, after all, a southern city, and they favor dry pasta in the south.) It’s never going to be a gourmet dish; even at its best, it’s pretty basic. But it can be tasty; and it’s fun to try different proportions with such a simple recipe.

  • 4 Lisa // Apr 25, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    It’s not the pepper – it’s something about the cheese clotting up and not mixing very well.

  • 5 angela // Apr 25, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    yeah, I’ve had that happen….just add more hot water from the pasta. mix the sauce while the pasta is still cooking.

  • 6 Doug // May 10, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Further research has revealed that Lisa was using pre-grated cheese and not enough pepper (you need a couple of spoonfuls, at least). It is certainly tastier with freshly grated Locatelli and freshly ground pepper.

    The last time I made this, I toasted the peppercorns in a dry skillet, and ground them up with a mortar and pestle — a variation many cooks swear by. It’s fun to watch the pepper jump around and pop; and the aroma is wonderful; but I didn’t find the outcome markedly different.

    Northern Italians make a similarly simple dish: fresh pasta, dressed with butter and parmesan. Romans prefer chewier noodles, stronger cheese, and pepper. But both are good. And neither is wrong!