Use Grains of Paradise in Cacio e Pepe for a Delightful Twist on a Cheesy Classic
Have you ever watched a video of someone tossing pasta in a huge, carved-out wheel of aged cheese? They’re making cacio e pepe, literally “cheese and pepper,” and it’s a glorious process. Cacio e pepe is like a faster, more sophisticated mac and cheese. It’s just four ingredients: pasta, butter or olive oil, black pepper and pecorino romano.
Once you master it (or if you already have), you can play around and try swapping the traditional black peppercorns for tiny and complex grains of paradise. Grains of paradise are a West African spice related to cardamom. They deliver a little cardamom flavor, but they also carry a heat similar to black peppercorn as well as notes of juniper. They’re a little floral, a little eucalyptus-y and a little spicy. They work well as a sub in cacio e pepe since they’re given room to shine. You could also try them in mulled wine or as an accent in baked goods that call for warming spices. Like black peppercorn, they’re best when freshly ground, so crack the ’em when you’re going to use ’em.
But don’t let the simplicity of cacio e pepe fool you: This classic dish holds a few universally helpful techniques that will make you a better cook.
Treat pasta water like an ingredient
This dish depends on starchy pasta water to create its silky sauce. But pasta water is valuable in a wide range of dishes. A splash can help you regulate the consistency of any pasta sauce. The sooner you learn to value this homemade backbone ingredient, the sooner you’ll have well-coated pastas. The first rule is never drain pasta water down the sink. Reserve some—or all—before you drain. Or, use tongs to move pasta to your sauce and leave the pasta water in the pot. (There are also delicious one-pot pastas that exploit the precious resource of pasta water by not draining at all, but we’re focusing on a sauce that’s built separately.)
What's in the water matters
The second rule is to learn to control the starch and salt in your pasta water. You can certainly fill a large pot with well-salted water and boil your pasta. But if you focus on creating the ingredient of pasta water, you’ll get a better final dish. And you need less water than you think to cook pasta. Those one-pot dishes work because they are more akin to cooking rice, where you want the pasta to absorb the water. Because you want a rich sauce for this dish, you want to ensure you have some pasta water to play with. Try using just 8 or 9 cups of water per pound of pasta (stirring to avoid clumps) so that your cooking liquid is richly starchy. Or use a shallow pan and cover your pasta with an inch or so of water rather than boiling in a pot. You also want to consider your salt level. When you’re cooking pasta, it’s great to salt the water, since it’s your chance to season the pasta. But if you go for less water and the commonly cited seawater salinity, it can make your final sauce too salty. Shoot for well-seasoned but not overly salty. It’s better to finish the completed dish with salt than to not be able to control it.
Bloom your spices
When making cacio e grains of paradise, you melt butter or heat olive oil (or both!) in a large skillet when your pasta is almost done cooking. Then you add the freshly ground grains of paradise to the fat to bloom the spice and infuse the sauce. Blooming spices is a great skill to keep in your pocket. It refers to heating the spices so the essential oils and fat-soluble compounds are released. This technique allows you to get the most flavor out of expensive ingredients, which is smart all around. And it increases the fragrance and disperses the flavor throughout the fat you’re using, so the final sauce is a perfect delivery system for the seasoning. This technique even helps pre-ground spices: Try it with blends like chili powder, curry powder or Chinese five-spice.
Emulsify your sauce
Once you’ve bloomed your spice, you want to add the pasta and pasta water to the skillet. Oil and water don’t mix, unless there’s an agent to emulsify them. In this case, it’s the starch in the pasta and pasta water. They’ll get you most of the way to a luxurious sauce. But the emulsification also allows you to incorporate finely grated pecorino romano, which bumps up the creaminess, flavor and saltiness of this magical dish.
Working quickly is key. You don’t want to scorch your spice by frying it too long. You don’t want to overcook your pasta by tossing it in the sauce for too long. And you don’t want the sauce to become too dry to integrate the cheese. Remember: The sauce will set up a little more once you plate the dish. And it never hurts to bump up the aroma with a final grind of grains of paradise and a little sprinkling of romano before serving