Cacio e Pepe is one of the four traditional Roman pasta dishes. Although it only contains a few simple ingredients, it’s a surprisingly difficult dish to master. Get it right, and it’s one of the most delicious dishes on the planet. But get it wrong, and you’ll end up with a bowl of bland pasta, tasteless pasta water and thick clumps of cheese.

The secret lies in the technique of combining together the cheese and the pasta water. Make sure you do this in a separate bowl (not the pans you used to cook the pasta and sauce, as these are too hot), and add the cheese a little at a time. Crucially: never stop stirring.

I’ve experimented with this dish a lot, and this is the version that I think gives the best results.

Ingredients (serves two)

200g spaghetti (or your pasta of choice)
80g Pecorino Romano
20g Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 teaspoons black peppercorns
25g butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Salt

Method

  1. Place spaghetti into a pot of generously salted boiling water.
  2. Grate the Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano into a fine powder (if the cheese isn’t grated finely enough it won’t melt properly when making the sauce, and you will end up with clumps of cheese).
  3. Place black peppercorns in a pan and toast over a medium heat for a few minutes.
  4. Remove peppercorns from pan and crush using a mortar and pestle (don’t crush too finely – you want to retain some texture).
  5. Place crushed peppercorns back into the pan on a medium temperature and add a ladleful of the pasta water. Simmer for a few minutes.
  6. Add the butter to the pan and let emulsify with the pasta water and crushed peppercorns.
  7. Add the lemon juice to the peppercorns and pasta water.
  8. When the spaghetti is cooked to al dente, remove from the pot using tongs and add to the pan containing the sauce. Don’t drain the pasta (we need to keep the pasta water for the sauce).
  9. Once all the spaghetti is in the pan with the crushed peppercorns, toss and stir vigorously to make sure all the spaghetti is coated in the sauce.
  10. Transfer the spaghetti into a large bowl.
  11. With one hand, pick up a handful of cheese and slowly release it into the bowl while the other hand stirs the pasta vigorously using a pair of kitchen tweezers or tongs. Make sure you only add a little cheese at a time, and don’t stop stirring.
  12. Repeat until all the cheese has been added. If at any time the pasta sauce starts to dry up, add a touch more pasta water from the pot.
  13. Although it might look messy to begin with, eventually if you persevere you should end up with a delicious silky sauce.
  14. Serve in a bowl and top with freshly grated Pecorino Romano and freshly crushed black pepper.