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Cooking [with] the books

by on May 23rd, 2016
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I’ve recently gotten into somewhat of a rut with cooking–but it’s a delicious, self-created rut. I am trying out different recipes for an Italian dish called cacio e pepe, which translates into ‘cheese and pepper.’ Simple, right? Yes, and no. Though recipes vary, the ingredients are generally the same: water, pasta, Pecorino Romano cheese, and pepper. You boil the pasta, grate the cheese, grind some pepper, then combine it all into a pan with a little bit of the pasta water. You end up with a well-coated plate of noodles. The not-so-simple part? First, deciding which recipe to use. I found at least five different ones in various cookbooks at the Library, all from well-known and respected chefs, several of them Italian, each one apparently saying that their recipe is the one to use. Some use the basic ingredients listed above, some add oil and/or butter. Some say that you should only use pecorino, while others also use Parmigiano-Reggiano or Cacio de Roma–all seem to use slightly different amounts. Some toss the pasta and cheese with a little oil or butter. Some sauté the pepper in some oil. Others toast the peppercorns in a pan before grinding. There is a lot of slight variation.

No problem, really, right? They’re probably all good, so just pick one and go with it. Then you get to the other tricky part, which is really the only thing you ‘do’ besides prep and boiling–the mixing. When it goes well, you get a nice sauce. When it doesn’t go well–and out of the four times I’ve made this, it hasn’t gone well twice–you get the dreaded clumpy cheese. The recipes also vary quite a bit here, with different ones saying what to mix the ingredients in (warm dish, warm pan, cold dish), when to add cooking water and how much, and how to add the cheese and how to toss the pasta with it. Seems trivial, until you try one way and your cheese turns into small bits of pepper-flaked goop. Luckily, it still tastes very good.

I made cacio e pepe a couple nights ago, and I think it was my best one yet. I used a recipe from Lidia Bastianich. It’s one of the simplest ones I’ve come across, so I wonder if I just got lucky. If you’d like to try your hand at mastering this deceptively simple dish, the Library has a wealth of Italian cookbooks for you to peruse to find a recipe. Let me know if you find a good one. Please.

Buon appetito!
cacio

3 Responses to “Cooking [with] the books”

  1. Anne says:

    My favorite Italian cookbooks are by Domenica Marchetti–the recipes are not that involved, but the results are fantastic. The Glorious Pasta of Italy is a good primer on making your own pasta.

  2. John Raeburn says:

    I first ate cacio e pepe in March 2001 at Spirito di Vino, a restaurant in the Trastevere quarter of Rome. I liked it so much I tried to duplicate it a week or two later when we returned to the Netherlands, where I was teaching. But none of the recipes I pulled from the internet worked: the cheese clumped, and the sauce didn’t adhere to the pasta. Back in Iowa later in the year I kept trying and finally found a recipe that I liked, which I copied onto an index card. Unfortunately, I failed to note the source,and now 15 years later it’s gone down the memory rabbit hole. But here is the recipe.

    –1/2 lb. pasta, such as linguini fini
    –2 tablespoons chilled butter
    –1/2 to 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
    –1/3 cup shredded pecorino Romano
    –1/3 cup grated Paremesan
    –1-2 tablespoons olive oil for serving
    –Snipped chives for garnish

    1. Bring large pot of salted water to boil; add pasta and cook until it is one minute shy of al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking water and drain.
    2. In a large skillet melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and saute cracked pepper in it until fragrant, about one minute.
    3. Add 1/4 cup cooking water to the skillet and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Stir until the butter is melted and the sauce begins to thicken, about 30 seconds.
    4. Add the cooked pasta and the two cheeses to the skillet and toss until cheese melts, about 30 seconds. Continue to toss to coat well the pasta, adding more cooking water if pasta seems too dry. Season with salt to taste (starting with 1/8 teaspoon).
    5. To serve, sprinkle with more grated pecorino (or pass a bowl of it at table) and drizzle with olive oil. Garnish with the chives.

    Serves four as a first course, two as a main course.

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