Everybody knows—and many love—the neon orange substance we call mac and cheese (the boxed variety). The “cheese” component of mac and cheese is a bit sketchy. It is indeed made of various milk derived products, along with a host of other ingredients, intended to bring the slumbering sauce back from its dry state and into a semi desirable liquid state. It does indeed have a color and flavor reminiscent of cheese. Something is amiss, though. Something, somehow, is just not quite right about the stuff.
There is a long tradition of churching up noodles through the addition of cheese, fat, pork products, and other lovely ingredients. There is a perception that follows good food: it is hard to make. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that many of these preparations are so simple and cheap that it may lead to a slight sense of anger. You can have a restaurant quality pasta meal ready in the time it takes to boil some pasta and mix it together.
Pasta Cacio e Pepe is one such preparation. Cacio e Pepe translates to cheese and pepper. Pasta with cheese and pepper. It is the adult version of mac and cheese that kids wont leave wasted at the table. It is so simple and delicious that more people should know about it. It is important to remember a simple maxim when preparing this and other simple pasta dishes: quality in, quality out. The better the ingredients, the better the outcome. Also, remember to look at it simplistically. While the technique may take a few attempts to master, you will find that it is typically a matter of doing less rather than more. I will try to explain the technique as best I can.
1 package of spaghetti (look for a sandpapery texture on the pasta)
1 ½ -2 cups of parmesan cheese
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 stick of butter
Fill a large pot of water and bring to a boil, adding a generous amount of salt. Finely grate the parmesan. Once the water has begun to boil, add the pasta. It is important to take the pasta out just before it is done because it will continue to cook in the sauce. In a large frying pan melt the butter over medium heat. Add two cups of pasta water to the butter, bring to a simmer, whisking to emulsify. When the pasta is almost done, add it to the frying pan. As it continues to cook, the starches will thicken the sauce. If it looks too dry, ladle in a bit more pasta water. Test the noodles; if they are at the desired texture, remove from the heat. Immediately sprinkle the cheese and pepper and stir to incorporate. Again, if it looks too dry, add a touch more pasta water. Once the cheese has incorporated and the sauce is smooth, serve with a bit more parmesan and pepper if desired. The salt from the cheese, butter, and water should be sufficient. Add more salt if needed.