Macaroni and cheese is a crowdpleaser. And while your go-to recipe has undoubtedly been a year-round hit, from Thanksgiving dinners to backyard barbecues, there’s always room for improvement. In their March 2016 cookbook Tasting Rome, journalist Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill curated innovative and undiscovered recipes they encountered while traveling through Rome. One of those was a cacio e pepe (“cheese and pepper,” in several Italian dialects) recipe by Leonardo Vignoli, chef at Cesae al Casaletto. It’s pasta tossed with “an emulsified sauce of Pecorino Romano and black pepper that is bound by starchy pasta-cooking water,” writes Parla. And while this creamy cacio e pepe is deliciously simple, Parla notes that technique is important: “If the water cools before melting the cheese, the sauce will clump.” As it turns out, this mac and cheese alternative is about as simple to make as the stuff that comes in a box.
Cacio e Pepe di Leonardo Vignoli
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound of spaghetti or tonnarelli
2 cups of finely grated Pecorino Romano
2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
Note: Steps 1 and 2 should be done simultaneously.
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water. When the salt has dissolved, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine 1.5 cups of the Pecorino Romano, the pepper, and a small ladle of pasta-cooking water. Using the back of a large wooden spoon, mix vigorously and quickly to form a paste.
3. When the pasta is cooked, use a large strainer to remove it from the cooking water and quickly add it to the sauce in the bowl, keeping the cooking water boiling on the stove. Toss vigorously, adjusting with additional hot water a tablespoon or two at a time as necessary to melt the cheese and to obtain a juicy sauce that completely coats the pasta.
4. Plate and sprinkle each portion with some of the remaining Pecorino Romano and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.