bucatini with corn, pepper & pecorino
it's not cacio e pepe, but it's not not cacio e pepe
If any dish represents the fervor with which Italians protect their culinary traditions, it’s cacio e pepe. Its short ingredient list reminds us that there is magic in simplicity and, also, good technique. Because it’s no secret that combining three seemingly harmonious ingredients—Pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper, and pasta—can actually be quite tricky. So tricky, in fact, that I was asked all about it by the BBC back in 2020, in which cacio e pepe was deemed “as delicious as it is difficult to perfect.”
Although today cacio e pepe is lauded as a luxury and graces many fine dining menus, its history lies in the humble homes of shepherds. Legend has it that the dish was created because it was cheap, shelf-stable, and transportable—qualities necessary for shepherds watching over their flocks (not to mention the cheese itself was made from the milk of their sheep). Which makes me think: If these shepherds could make this creamy pasta dish with the bare necessities, certainly we can, too, and perhaps we’re all just overthinking it. And it’s true, because I can assure you that cacio e pepe is actually easy to make, as long as you keep a few things in mind:
Prep ahead: Part of the challenge of cacio e pepe is the speed with which it comes together. It’s easy to panic, but it’s also easy not to if you prep ahead. Toasting and grinding your peppercorns and grating your cheese (never use pre-grated cheese!) before dropping the pasta gets you 90% of the way there.
Temper your cheese: There are a hundred ways to make this dish, but my favorite (and, I’d wager, the most traditional), is to temper the cheese with a splash of pasta cooking water and mix it into a paste before adding it to the pan (see this not-carbonara recipe I shared a few months ago—it’s the same idea). Slowly bringing the cheese to a higher temperature means it’s far less likely to clump, which brings me to…
Control your heat: High heat + cheese (especially an aged cheese like Pecorino Romano, which resists melting) = a stringy mess. I add the cheese off the heat—this rings true of pretty much any recipe I develop that incorporates cheese—so it melts gently without seizing.
You’ll also, no doubt, see plenty of commentary about how starchy your pasta water should be (should you cook the pasta in half the water to concentrate the starch?) because starch acts as a binder. To be honest, in my experience, this makes very little, if any, difference as long as you’ve implemented the tips above.
Okay, so I’ve gone on a little cacio e pepe tangent, but today we’re not actually making cacio e pepe (bookmark this for the next time you do!). We’re making a cacio e pepe-inspired sauce with two very big, possibly blasphemous differences: 1) corn and 2) a blender. When I think about high-summer produce, corn on the cob always comes to mind—something you surely will not find in Italy, but I’ll save that for another time—and I particularly love the combination of its sweet, vegetal flavor with salty, sharp Pecorino Romano (more corn-pecorino inspiration linked below). But how could I combine these two ingredients in a new way?
My next thought was whatever I created had to be quick and easy, something without much stove time (hello 100-degree weather), something like…a shepherd’s meal-on-the-go. So I decided to try infusing a little Americana into my favorite speedy pasta dish. Of course, even though this was not going to be cacio e pepe (did I mention that?), I wanted to keep the luscious, creamy soul of the dish intact—which, when dealing with corn, means a blender. As a purist who’s only ever made cacio e pepe the traditional way, I had never considered putting a large amount of Pecorino Romano in a blender. And, I’ll admit, I was a little scared.
Before I put this recipe to the test, I did some research to see if anyone else had been crazy enough to make cacio e pepe (or something similar) in a blender. To my surprise, this has not only been done, but it’s top-of-mind: A few months ago, YouTube star Andrew Rea of Binging with Babish posted a video explaining that using a blender was now his preferred way of making the dish. The technique, he says, is something he picked up from Michelin-starred Italian chef Luciano Monosilio (who developed it to keep up with the high demand for cacio e pepe in his restaurant), and totally “foolproof” because the blender’s power and speed make a more stable emulsion—one that can even withstand high heat. Better yet, for this particular recipe, the corn (extra starch) and butter used to cook it makes the sauce even harder to break.
With my fears dispelled, I dove in headfirst, and was thrilled with the result: A sweeter, not-too-sharp, extra-peppery plate of pasta that satisfied my cravings while putting the best of summer produce to use (keep those corn cobs handy, too!). And, although I stand by my tips for actually easy cacio e pepe above, this was, indeed, foolproof. So, although nothing will ever replace my deep love of cacio e pepe, this sure comes close.
Bucatini with Corn, Pepper & Pecorino