So around the same time I picked up Samin Nosrat’s book, I decided to investigate a simple no-box mac-and-roni-cheese (it’s what my kids call it). There are lots of recipes1 but most involve making a roux or I end up with grainy cheese. Enter cacio e pepe.
The idea is that it’s a 4-5 ingredient take on cheesy noodles. Almost every video you find online says it’s the Roman mac-n-cheese. It’s remarkably simple on paper, but there is an element of technical precision necessary as the sauce is an emulsion and emulsions can be tricky.
I’ve been trying to get this dish to work for weeks and have failed no less than seven times. Failure looks like a broken sauce and I’ve broken this sauce alot. So last night I made a few adjustments and nailed it. I can’t tell you how high it feels to nail a four ingredient pasta dish.
You can follow any recipe because they’re all basically the same. Fat + al dente pasta + pasta water + pepper + cheese. For me the trick came down to a couple of things. First, using a big enough pot/pan. I’m cooking for 4 and a 12” little saute pan isn’t big enough to really work with the emulsion. Secondly, less is more with the pasta water. Because the backbone of this dish is the sauce, it requires the most attention. You need enough fat (in my case, butter) to have a good coating on the bottom of the pan. Add the pasta al dente as it’ll keep cooking in the sauce. Add a little pasta water. Bring that sauce to a boil to encourage the emulsion and to finish cooking the pasta. Stir a lot. The agitation of stirring helps the emulsion. Once the sauce has emulsified, then you can add little more water to bring the volume up. Then cheese.
It’s actually really hard to describe which is why none of the recipes really touch on it. This dish is simple enough that it really depends on technique.