Along with Carbonara, Gricia and Amatriciana, Cacio e Pepe is one of the four classic pastas of Rome. This favourite of mine feels like its full of cream but it’s not. It is comprised of super finely grated Pecorino cheese and Pepper with starchy pasta water providing the binder. Despite being such a simple sounding dish, it is quite finicky because if your temperatures are too high, the cheese will get stringy and ruin the texture. Before this cheese sauce base, I never made it at home.
I was thrilled to discover that the starchy bean liquid from a can of beans creates the perfect substitution for pasta water and to make life easier, I make this thick, creamy base. No more broken sauce, no more stringy cheese that refuses to bind to the water but 100% Cacio e Pepe taste! The rich, creaminess of the white beans is a perfect match. Serve it over polenta, as a side with garlicky rapini and some roast lamb but remember, it’s rich so a little goes a long way.
I discovered this method of making a stable cheese base from an Italian Chef who uses this method in his restaurant and it is foolproof. This recipe makes more than you need for one batch of beans, but it keeps in the fridge for a week so you can use the rest for pasta or just make more beans!
- 1 can (540mL) of white kidney beans, with canning liquid
- 1 stalk of rosemary
- 1 garlic clove, smashed lightly
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 4 to 6 Tbsp of *cacio e pepe base
- 2 ladles full of bean cooking liquid
- 1 or more Tbsp water
- Fresh black pepper
- Pecorino Romano for dusting finished dish
*Cacio E Pepe base
(note – it’s important that the cheese be measured by weight)
- 100 grams Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated
- 150 grams Pecorino Romano, finely grated
- 1 Tbsp virgin olive oil
- Lots of black pepper – at least 1Tbsp
- 1 Tbsp cornstarch
- 2/3 cup of cold water
The cheese needs to be measured by weight because, depending on how fine it’s grated, it will look like very different volumes so use a scale or buy exact weights of each cheese at the deli counter. Also, use the finest rasp or grater you have to grate it – the finer the better for this recipe.
Put the cornstarch and cold water in a small saucepan whisk to get rid of any lumps. I use my fingers to mix it – the easiest way to make a lump free slurry. As it heats, it will start to turn to a light gel. Stir and keep an eye on it, keeping it under a simmer and as soon as it starts to gel, remove it from the heat and set aside to cool a bit. This mixture is the magic stabilizer that doesn’t change the taste of the dish at all.
Put your cheeses, olive oil and pepper in a blender OR you can use an immersion blender in a tall yogurt container sized vessel. Pour in the cornstarch gel and start to mix it until you are left with a nice, thick, creamy paste. This is your cacio e pepe sauce base. It can be kept in the fridge for up to a week, so use the leftovers to make pasta, throw a spoonful over hot broccoli or cauliflower for a decadent cheesy sauce. (To use it for pasta, do the same thing, substituting the bean liquid for pasta cooking water but the technique is the same). It would also make a killer mac and cheese.
To make the beans:
Open your can of beans and dump the whole thing, liquid and all, into a pot. Add a Tbsp of olive oil, a sprig of rosemary and a smashed garlic clove. Heat over med until it just comes to a simmer and then lower the heat and let the beans infuse with the flavourings for 5 to 10 minutes. We just want to make sure the beans are thoroughly heated and pick up some flavour from the garlic and rosemary.
In a sauté pan, ladle in some of the thick bean broth – doesn’t have to be precise, two ladle fulls should do it. Now, into the pan, add anywhere from 4 to 6 tbls of Cacio e Pepe base – it’s quite a strong flavour so taste it after you add 4 Tbsp and see if you would like a stronger taste. If some, add some more. Gently heat the pan, stirring the cheese and the liquid together to make a creamy sauce. You will likely have to add a Tbsp or two of water to thin it out a bit.
Now, remove the rosemary and garlic clove from the beans and using a slotted spoon, remove the beans, straining out the remaining liquid and add them the pan with the sauce. When all the beans are in the pan, stir them around and really get everything friendly.
Pour into a shallow bowl, grind more black pepper onto the top and add some freshly grated Parmesan.