With just cheese and black pepper to season the pasta, Cacio e Pepe is one of the simplest kinds of pasta, yet it is devilishly difficult to execute.
I first had Cacio e Pepe at a restaurant in NYC about 15 years ago. It took me years of practice to master the art of emulsifying the grated cheese with the boiling liquid from pasta to make a supremely creamy sauce like a liquified version of the cheese you start with. The challenge is to create the emulsion without raising the temperature so high that the cheese separates into a stringy, watery mess.
Cut to earlier this week when I was going through old recipes on the blog, and I came across a recipe for Gnocchi with a creamy Gruyere sauce. It's been years since I made it, but I still remember how silky smooth the sauce was. The trick is to toss the cheese with starch before heating it. As the starch heats up and gels, it stabilizes the cheese so it won't break.
I tried the method for this Cacio e Pepe, which makes for a durable sauce that doesn't break even after raising the temperature until the sauce boils (usually a mortal sin). This is a game changer for this dish as it makes it simple enough that a 10-year-old could make it.
I've deliberately specified a tiny amount of water relative to the amount of pasta because this creates very starchy pasta water, which further contributes to the stability of the sauce. Because there isn't much water, it's best to use short pasta for this recipe (I used Casarecce).
As for the pepper, I found a place here in Japan that makes salt-cured black pepper. They're essentially pickled black peppercorns, which are insanely fragrant. You can, of course, do this by grinding dried black peppercorns, but you'll want to reduce the amount a bit as dried peppercorns are much lighter than fresh ones.
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