Replica: cacio e pepe

I can make a lot of things.  However: there are some I believe are Better Left to the Professionals.
Breads that defy the laws of physics and pleasure thresholds (I can make a serviceable Pullman loaf, a relatively crusty rye boule, and some dense whole wheat sandwich bread, but for now I trust my bread-gasms to these folks and these folks, and these other folks when in SF); anything involving a wok heated to unearthly levels (my setup just won’t get it there); fancy Frenchy things that involve special equipment and/or an unwavering commitment to technique and fine motor skill (have you met me?); most desserts.
Handmade pasta was, until recently, a member of that list.  I had made it before, but it never turned out nearly as lovely as what I had had in restaurants (or even, depending on the brand, what I could coax out of a nice box of the dried stuff).  Those of you who know me also know that I was a staunch avoider of All Things Doughy until recently, so it was easier to pretend that I sucked at making pasta, so there and amen.
But every once in a while, a lady has an interlude with Fate. 
(Now I’m not talking momentous, life-altering Fate.  I’m talking Minor Fate.  Pasta Fate.  Somewhere in between Really Good Haircut Fate and Crazy Good Roast Chicken Recipe Fate.)
And she ignores it a little because she’s on vacation and is busy eating everything in San Francisco.
And then Fate returns, slowly brushing her hair behind her ear amid the noise of a crowded Saturday night restaurant, and whispers soft but stern, “NO SERIOUSLY.”
The first interlude with Minor Pasta Fate was at SPQR during Honeymoon: California Edition last summer.  A pasta tasting menu was available (best part of vacation:  weekday night dinner specials), and all of it was made in-house.  Now, on the one hand, I know:  big whoop.  Housemade pasta is one of many new blacks.  Whatever.
On the other hand:  sigh-inducing, heartstring-tugging, delicate, downright-romantic-there-I-said-it pasta with clingy sauces that force you to close your eyes to shut out everything and I mean everything but the sensation of eating That Pasta?  Truly large whoop.
I wondered something and simultaneously answered myself:  “Could I try to do something like th-? OH NO WAY.”  A whoop so big it was enough to shut out any potential pasta dreams.  The pedestal was high, kids.
And anyway, we were on vacation. I had other things to think about.  Like half the menu at Zuni Cafe.  And Old Bay crawfish beignets the size of softballs at Brenda’s.  I had to stay focused. 
So after the solid 3 hour vision quest that was dinner, it must have become apparent to the chef that we were not out for a quick bite on a Wednesday night (all but one or two little tables had gone home).  He struck up a conversation, and asked where we were from. We told him, and he mentioned that some people he used to cook with – the people who, in fact, had taught him a lot about making pasta and who I was therefore convinced were clog-wearing, knife-wielding unicorns – had just opened up a new restaurant called Balena.  We had heard of it, and already had plans to check it out.  We shared with him some of our favorite Chicago places for when he was next in town.  Lovely chat, very nice people, promises to come back soon, handshakes and smiles all around, yadda yadda.
Thoroughly relaxed after wine pairings for 6 courses, any remaining pipe dreams to replicate the pasta with which I felt I had just had a rather steamy affair were quickly forgotten.  Abandoned, I think, down the street outside the doors of Yoshi’s, where the jazz show we meant to see had already started while we were running our mouths at the restaurant.  Fillmore Street was empty, and we gleefully announced to no one in particular that we would be soldiering onward, thank you: “To… uh, another bar!”
Fast forward about six months.  It’s January in Chicago, and it’s actually kind of a nice night.  (By which I mean it is neither blizzarding nor in negative windchills.  Those come later the following week.)  Danny and I take my parents to – you guessed it – Balena for dinner as their Christmas gift.
We order, well, half the menu, it seems.  We order starters and a little pizza, various braised meats and some pasta.  We are sharing everything.  This is all great and good and fine with me until I taste the cacio e pepe.  After my first bite, I feel that same floaty feeling of having been smitten by some sort of pasta Cupid.  Everything slows down.  Everything is quiet.  I look down at my plate; two very precious forkfuls remain.  I look around the table to see if anyone is looking at me expectantly, to see if I missed some sort of question or conversation topic and have been caught in the act of paying zero attention.  Everything seems cool – it’s safe to direct my entire focus to these two bites of pasta.
And so I do.
And right then and there, people, it is DECIDED:  I am going to spend every free weekend day pouring blood, sweat, tears, and really mostly just a lot of semolina flour into humble but 100% love-driven efforts to make something that even halfway approximates the soul-stirring lusciousness of this pasta.
Does this seem dramatic?  Maybe.  Love’s dramatic, folks.
Le sigh.
So today, Day 1 of Pasta Camp, I dug out the Imperia.  A gift from my parents for a birthday several years ago, the ol’ pasta rolling set is seldom used but much adored, and is precisely what you need it to be when you do need it.  
Crank in hand, and apparently with angels presiding, I got to a very excellent incarnation of cacio e pepe after only two tries.  The key when you are trying to hit your own balance of sauce to cheese to pepper is breaking your batch of pasta out into small, one-cup-ish portions and basically cooking it “to order,” adjusting different elements each time.
You will notice that the ingredients here are minimal.  All you taste is all you put into it:  semolina, eggs, olive oil, cheese, black pepper.  What makes this transcendent, though, is the velvety but light “sauce” that gets pulled together between oil, cheese, and starchy cooking water in the hot seconds it takes to toss the pasta around in the pan.  For help on proportions, I remembered this recipe I saw in Saveur a while back, though I was using fresh pasta and, I figured, probably not a pound of it.
So let’s do this.
Get this:

For the pasta…
  • 3/4 cup semolina flour
  • 3/4 cup AP flour (some people like all-semolina.  It’s a goal I hope to work toward, but today needed to be a baby step.)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 T water
  • 2 T olive oil
For the rest of it…
  • 1 cup of Parmigiano Reggiano/pecorino Romano/caciocavallo, grated, in whatever proportion you’d like.  (I did half parm and half romano, and it was lovely.  True cacio was not to be had in today’s ice storm.)
  • about 2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper, according to taste
  • Olive oil
And yes, you’ll also need some sort of pasta rolling/cutting device.
Now do this:

First, mix your flour(s) and salt.  Flip it around in a mixing bowl.  It’s pretty casual.

Now gather your eggs and olive oil and water.  You can crack the eggs straight into the bowl, and add the oil and water right in as well.

Grab a fork and stir everything around, making sure to pierce the egg yolks so they break and blend in. You may have seen this magic happen on TV or wherever, where the cook has a mound of flour on a bare countertop and is just swirling it all around with their hands and there are rainbows and pixie dust and it all just comes together and looks like dough as soon as the 2 minute harp interlude is over.
That’s not how it happens in my kitchen.  I said I can deal with dough; I didn’t say I was a unicorn.  If you are anything like me, you will be using that fork.
Once your dough is combined, take a second to check the texture.  It should be stiff, but still doughy.  Too tacky?  Work in a little more flour (with your hands now).  Too dry?  Throw in a little more water, maybe a teaspoon at a time.  
Now it’s time to work the countertop.  (Hope you cleaned it!)  Dump out that dough and knead it lightly for about 10 minutes.  It should be a pretty small dough ball, so you’re not doing any crazy bicep work here.  As you knead, you should start to notice it becoming a little more springy.  This is good.  Keep it up.
The dough should be smooth and a bit elastic by the time you’re done with it.  Now form it into a little ball, throw it back in the bowl, and cover it with a towel for 20 minutes.  Wash your hands and get a pot of water ready to boil.  Salt that thang.  Also, set up a small mixing bowl with about 1/2 cup of semolina flour in it.  You’ll need it later.
Get your pasta crank all set up and secured on the counter.  Once your dough is ready, cut it into 4 pieces.  (These are the mini-batches I was talking about earlier.  Also handy for regular pasta use – they come out into about 1-cup servings.)  Roll the dough out either with your hands or a rolling pin until it’s just thin enough to fit through the widest setting of your flat roller.  (Mine is the “1” setting.)  Roll that thing out on that width a few times to get it smooth and, as a cook taught me once, “nice-feeling.”  Feel free to fold it over a couple of times to get even edges.
Now start to gradually get it down to thinner settings.  I like my spaghetti with a little bite on it still, so I only went down to “3.”  I ran it through 2-3 times on each setting before switching the crank to the spaghetti cutting die and running the dough through it.
(A note:  my first dough was a little too wet, still, but I did not realize it until I attempted to get it through the spaghetti cut.  It came out not as individual noodles, but a wall of dough with some cuts in it.  PANIC?  No.  Just work a little more flour into it – I used the semolina – and try again.  No biggie.)

Once you’ve got a nest of pasta, gently drop it, bit by bit, into your bowl of semolina flour, and flip it around a couple of times to coat the noodles.  I find this is helpful to keep the noodles from sticking together before I get them in the pot.  (Especially if you are still waiting for your water to boil.)  Cook the pasta for like 2-3 minutes, if even that – it depends on your pasta and your taste.  When it’s done, pull it out with some tongs and remove it to a plate or bowl.  Do not dump that pasta water, for the love of all that is holy.
Meanwhile, splash about a tablespoon of olive oil into a medium saute pan over medium-high heat.  Once the oil is hot, add a quarter of the pepper to let it bloom for a minute, stirring to make sure it’s spread out evenly.  Then add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water.  Let it boil down for a few seconds, until it’s thickened a bit.
Then add your cooked pasta and a quarter of the cheese to the pan.  Reduce the heat to medium and flip the pasta around to combine the cheese and sauce until all of the water is combined into the sauce, and there are no clumps of cheese.
Is this batch too gooey?  No velveteen sauce to be found?  Add a little more pasta water next time.  Maybe a little button of butter if you’re feeling sexy.  Is it swimmy?  Less water, and/or let it cook down a little more before adding the pasta.  If you are a cheese hound (which I am, but this dish brings out a rare side of restraint in me), feel free to add a bit more of it, and same with the pepper.  After all, it’s in the name.

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