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Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe {Authentic Recipe}

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe {Authentic Recipe}

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Tonnarelli cacio e pepe is one of the most famous dishes of the Roman tradition, of course, along with pasta alla carbonara and pasta alla gricia.

Like spaghetti aglio e olio, it is one of the so-called poor man’s dishes or “piatti poveri” in Italian. 

These are the meals that were prepared by the poorest people, with only few ingredients they could find at home: pasta, cheese and black pepper.

According to legends, this dish was anciently cooked by shepherds, during the grazing months.

In that period, those who looked after the sheep had to spend much time away from home, and they couldn’t take many ingredients with them. They only had some pasta, a few spices, and, of course, sheep cheese.

These are the exact ingredients you’ll need for authentic Cacio e Pepe recipe.

This dish has not changed since ancient times and can be made in less than 15 minutes. 

All you need to know is a few simple tips and tricks for the best cacio e pepe recipe.

I’m going to share all the tips and tricks below so that you make the most delicious, creamy and lump free cheese and pepper pasta at home.

Cacio e Pepe Ingredients

Cacio and pepe pasta has truly minimal ingredients. Even for the famous “midnight spaghetti” aglio olio e peperoncino you’ll technically need “more ingredients”. Well, granted, all of them are pantry items, in contract to cacio e pepe, where you do need quality Pecorino cheese.

But yes, to make authentic cacio a pepe pasta all you need is ONLY 3 ingredients.

Tonnarelli Pasta and Its Substitutes

Tonnarelli is an egg pasta type from Lazio. It is shaped like square spaghetti and is usually thicker than the other types of fresh pasta. This quality makes it perfect for any sauce from Central Italy and, of course, for cacio e pepe.

This type of pasta is very easy to find in Rome, but if you live elsewhere it’s much easier to get it online. Or, even better, make tonnarelli pasta at home.

You just need a guitar. No, not the musical instrument: the chitarra (“guitar”) is a traditional tool used for cutting pasta.

It’s a very simple instrument, made with two layers of strings on which you can press fresh pasta dough to make tonnarelli, spaghetti, maccheroni, and many others. That’s the reason why tonnarelli are often called “spaghetti alla chitarra”.

You can find all the information about the pasta guitar and a step-by-step recipe with pictures here:

Tonnarelli {How To Make Tonnarelii Pasta Step-By-Step}

Of course, tonnarelli is the most traditional pasta for authentic cacio e pepe.

But there are also other alternatives for when you can’t get a hold of this particular kind of pasta.

Your next best choice is Bucatini.

In short, bucatini pasta is spaghetti with a hollow center.  It’s a great alternative for cacio e pepe because it’s thick and toothy as tonnarelli and the whole that runs through the center of each rod is able to capture even more sauce.

Nice, quality, durum wheat spaghetti will also work great. And some people even like to make it with rigatoni.

The important thing is that the pasta is rough enough to hold the cream.
Make sure it’s made with quality flour, too. If the flour is good and the dough is well made, the pasta will contain a lot of starch, which will come in handy when making the creamy cheese sauce.

Whole Dried Peppercorns

This simple but yet very important ingredient is one of the protagonists of this dish.

It’s best to use whole peppercorns and crush them in a way to make uneven powder with smaller and bigger chunks just when you’re ready to make pasta. 

They’ll release an amazing aroma when toasted and pair perfectly with slightly tangy Pecorino cheese.
You can use fresh ground pepper if you don’t have whole peppercorns handy.
The amount of pepper is approximate so you might use anywhere between 1 and 2 tsp depending on your taste. Keep in mind though that pepper is one of the main ingredients and not just a seasoning in this pasta, so you really need to see it and to taste in final dish.

Pecorino Romano Cheese

Pecorino Romano cheese is the main ingredient that gives flavor to this pasta, so make sure to choose Pecorino of the highest quality. 

This is important for two reasons. 

  1. Pretty obvious: the better the cheese, the better the taste. 
  2. Low-quality imitations of pecorino are often made by mixing cow’s milk and goat’s milk. This is a problem both because it goes against the nature of pecorino cheese and because the two types of milk have different proteins, which will react differently to the starch in the cooking water. Cheeses made this way will not make a good cream: there’s a high chance they will curdle and form lumps.

Whenever possible get a whole piece of quality Pecorino Romano cheese and grate it at home. In case, if you want to buy already grated Pecorino cheese make sure you read the list of the ingredients and that it contains 100% pecorino cheese (not a mix of different types of cheese with pecorino).

How to make perfect Pecorino Cream

As mentioned above, choosing highest quality Pecorino cheese will set you for success from the get go.

But there’s one more thing you should pay attention to when making the cream  – it’s the amount of cooking water you pour into the bowl. The cream shouldn’t be too liquid, as it’ll dissolve quite a lot when added to pasta. 

It’s best to add half a ladleful at a time until you get smooth but still thick consistency. Unfortunately, there’s no set amount of cooking water to use, and you’ll have to rely on your eyes and experience to figure out if you’re using too much, or too little. 

In case your Pecorino cream did turn out a little runny when added to the pan with pasta, enjoy it as is and make sure to make “scarpetta” to clean the pan.

But one thing you should never do, is turn the heat on when Pecorino cream has been added to the pan with pasta. This will ruin the whole dish.

So don’t worry if the cream doesn’t come out quite right the first time you make it. Pasta cacio e pepe is one of those dishes that you learn by practicing, and in the end, everyone does it their way. You know what they say: practice makes perfect!

Extra Ingredients

The traditional cacio e pepe recipe requires just the 3 ingredients you’ve read above, but many people now do it with some extra ingredients. As I said before, everyone has their own method, after all. Anyway, some of these ingredients are not necessary and, sometimes, they’re added because of a misunderstanding. 

Many people, for instance, pour some oil into the pan before adding the crushed peppercorns just because they’re used to do so every time they make a sauce. In this case, however, there is no such need. It would be better to toast the pepper without anything. Just make sure to use a nonstick pan. 

The same goes if you’re thinking about using butter. There’s no need to do so, and you can save it for something else.

Others replace a third of the Pecorino cheese with Parmesan, on the assumption that this makes the cream more delicate. Purists look at this practice with suspicion. After all, as I’ve written before, using a cheese made with cow’s milk can cause problems with the cream. However, if you respect the proportions, you can do it that way too.

Finally, some spice up their tonnarelli cacio e pepe with a few sage leaves. Although the recipe doesn’t mention it, this is a harmless inclusion that can give extra freshness to the dish.

a bowl of cacio e pepe pasta

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe

Tonnarelli cacio e pepe is one of the most famous dishes of the Italian couisine. Make with just 3 ingredients: pasta, cheese and pepper it's absolutely divine!
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Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time10 mins
Course: Pasta
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 4

Ingredients

  • 15 oz tonnarelli (dry tonnarelli or other pasta, see notes above)
  • 3 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1-2 tsp of whole dried black peppercorns (see notes above)

Instructions

  • Start by preparing a pot with water and turning on the heat.
  • While you're waiting for it to come to a boil, grate the Pecorino cheese and set it aside in a bowl.
  • Immediately after, crush the black peppercorns in a mortar or on a cutting board using a meat pounder.
  • When the water boils, add some salt and shortly after, tonnarelli pasta.
    The water should be salted very lightly as the cheese sauce will add the extra saltiness to the final dish.
  • While pasta is cooking prepare the sauce.
  • In a large skillet pan place half of crushed peppercorns and turn on the heat.
    Let them toast for a couple of minutes until they strat to release the aroma. It's important to stir continuously and not let the peppercorns burn.
  • As soon as they start releasing their aroma, add a ladleful of cooking water. The starch from the tonnarelli will react by creating a bubbly foam that will be part of this dish’s signature cream. Do not make the mistake of using plain hot water: only use water from the pot in which you are cooking the tonnarelli.
  • Add half a ladle of cooking water to the bowl with previously grated pecorino cheese. Stir very quickly. Add half a ladleful of cooking water again and keep stirring. In a few seconds, a thick cream should form. It should be pretty thick but smooth, so be careful not to use too much water.
  • When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan, then either toss or stir with tongs (the important thing is that it moves in the pan a lot).
    Add another ladleful of cooking water and keep stirring. Soon, a cream will form.
  • Turn off the heat, add the Pecorino cream you just made to the pasta. Keep tossing (or stirring) and, if the pasta looks too dry, add a little more cooking water.
  • Add the rest of the crushed peppercorns and serve.

Notes

The pasta must be well al dente when you drain it because it will need to cook for another couple of minutes in the pan while you mix it with the cream.
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How To Make Cacio e Pepe Pasta {A Simplified Method}

What you’ve just read is the traditional recipe for cacio e pepe pasta. However, there is an easier way to prepare this dish. I’m not sure if I would call it a 100% correct method, because you skip some steps and the result is a little less creamy. Anyway, many people prefer to do it this way because it’s faster and requires less attention (and one less pan to wash later). You can try both methods and choose the one the works best for you.

Basically, this method consists of skipping the pepper toasting. While the water is boiling, mix the crushed peppercorns with the freshly grated Pecorino cheese in a bowl. When the pasta is ready, pour some of the cooking water into the bowl and make the cream as I taught you a moment ago. Then drain the pasta, add it to the bowl and stir quickly.

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