Mac and cheese all grown up

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

Before my grandson came to visit last week, I emailed him asking what dishes he would like me to cook. Being an aspiring gourmet, he didn’t waste any time replying with his choices.

Going over the list, all seemed doable except the last: macaroni and cheese.

Although I love macaroni and cheese, turning on the oven in midsummer was not appealing. But at 12 years old, he was ready for Pasta Cacio e Pepe, or what I like to call the adult mac and cheese.

Cacio e Pepe, or cheese and pepper pasta, is a classic Roman dish with a long history.

Shepherds who spent months outside herding their sheep liked to travel with a hunk of cheese, some dried pasta and a bag of peppercorns. After crushing the peppercorns between two stones, the dish came together in a matter of minutes. The pasta and cheese filled the shepherds’ stomachs, and the pepper kept them warm.

Although Cacio e Pepe is a minimalist dish, the resulting flavors are complex. With just two main ingredients, it essential to use the best quality possible, beginning with the cheese.

There is no need to drive to Hunt Valley to buy quality cheese. I prefer Deli Delicious at 966 S. George St. (across the street from WellSpan York Hospital), which carries a wide selection of cheeses, including the sheep’s milk cheeses to make Cacio e Pepe. The staff at the store is knowledgeable and helpful. They are at Eastern Market on Fridays.

The other main ingredient is the pepper. Forget the dry, flavorless flakes lingering in your pepper shaker. The only way to get maximum flavor is to buy peppercorns and freshly grind them.

If you don’t have a pepper mill, putting the peppercorns in a plastic bag and banging them with a hammer will achieve the same result. If you want to kick up the dish a notch on the gastronomic scale, look for Tellicherry peppercorns, which are less hot but more aromatic than regular peppercorns.

Cacio e Pepe

1 heaping tablespoon salt (for the pasta water)

1 pound spaghetti

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano

3/4 cup finely grated Cacio de Roma or Pecorino Toscano

Bring a 6-quart pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente, 8–10 minutes; remove 1 cup pasta water and drain the pasta.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the pepper. Stir and cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes.

Pour the reserved pasta water into the skillet and bring to a boil.

Transfer the pasta to the skillet. Sprinkle 3/4 cup each Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma over the pasta. Toss well to combine, until the sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping.

Transfer to 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining Pecorino and more pepper if desired.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.