Cacio e Pepe is a classic Italian dish that’s pretty hard to mess up but also very difficult to innovate. There are only so many things you can change without the threat of a gaggle of internet-enabled Italians coming after you with pitchforks and colorful expletives.
But I think I have devised kind of a brilliant loophole. Cacio e pepe directly translates to “cheese and pepper.” So why not get a little creative when considering the pepper half of the equation? Instead of just black peppercorns, this recipe uses black, white, AND Sichuan peppercorns for a spicy, very slightly “numbing” concoction.
The flavor of this cacio e pepe recipe is really full-bodied–and delightfully East meets West-esque. The black and white peppercorns provide warmth and spice, and the Sichuan peppercorns leave that most excellent tingly numbness in your mouth, giving the dish a whole new level of complexity.
I don’t want to toot my own horn too much or anything, but the awesomeness of this recipe will definitely sneak up on you. Just wait for the moment when each peppercorn does its thing and you’re in cheesy, peppery heaven. What’s more, it comes together really quickly–there’s really no excuse to not try it!
Spicy Numbing Cacio e Pepe: Recipe Instructions
First, cook your spaghetti following the package instructions, adding a few good pinches of salt to the water. Also set a timer for 1 minute less than the recommended pasta cooking time. This is key for final orchestration of this dish)!
Mix together your peppercorns (read more about Sichuan peppercorns and white peppercorns if you’re unfamiliar with them), and load them into a grinder. Alternatively, you can pre-grind in a spice mill or a mortar and pestle. A good mix of a coarse and fine grind is just perfect.
When there’s about 4 minutes left for your pasta to boil, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. The pan should be big enough to accommodate all of the pasta.
Add approximately 2 teaspoons (eyeballing it is just fine) of your cracked peppercorn mixture into the oil. The pepper should sizzle to infuse the oil (make sure the pepper is getting gently fried rather than crisped and burnt in the oil).
Remove 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water from the pot, and transfer to the oil and pepper mixture, turning the heat up to medium high. Be careful, because there’s quite a lot of sizzly water-on-oil action!
Your pasta should be 1 minute away from al dente by now. Drain the pasta and add to the oil mixture in the skillet.
Toss quickly, and add the pecorino and parmesan.
While you’re at it, add some more of your peppercorn mixture to taste, depending on your preferences for spice. The world is your oyster!
Stir and toss the pasta until there are no more cheese clumps left and the excess water has cooked off into a smooth, silky sauce. Top with a sprinkling of more cheese and more cracked pepper.
If you can’t get enough of Sichuan peppercorns, then check out Dan Dan Noodles or our traditional Ma Po Tofu recipes