I am a huge fan of salty/sweet combos. They make my heart sing. I never tire of them. I love them so much that I’m willing to tamper with an Italian classic for the sake of them. And I’ve got to tell you, that is a very dangerous thing to do on the Internet. There are apparently a lot of keyboard warriors out there who moonlight as experienced Italian chefs. But even though my exploits may elicit eye rolls and snide comments, the palette wants what it wants. And my palette wants Cacio e Pepe with Shaved Pear and Fried Sage. Who am I to argue?
Now, I will say upfront that Cacio e Pepe is a cruel mistress. Sure it may seem simple but as so often happens the simplest recipes turn out to be the most difficult to execute. A clumpy sauce is the most common pitfall for this iconic dish. The cheese gets too hot too fast and seizes instead of melting into a velvety sauce. I, of course, have a bunch of tips and tricks in the recipe that will help you avoid this disappointing fate. But the first time you make this dish, it might be a miss. I have screwed up Cacio e Pepe more times than I can count. But on the bright side, once you do it correctly, you won’t mess it up again.
Technically Cacio e Pepe should contain only three ingredients: pasta, pecorino Romano, and pepper. We can argue over whether pasta water counts as an ingredient or not but it is certainly crucial to the success of this dish. I cheated a little with my rendition because I used olive oil. And I’m going to add further fuel to the fire by urging you to do the same.
I didn’t arrive at this indiscretion by myself. I was led there by the fine folks at Serious Eats. They suggested frying the black pepper in a little oil before adding the pasta to the pan. This appealed to me because this would result in a flavored oil, which I thought would enhance the overall pepperiness of the dish. I even upped the ante by frying some sage in the oil as well. If this step is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Once the pepper is happy and the sage is fried, turn the heat down as low as it will go. At this point you should have spaghetti that is just a hair undercooked in about half the amount of water you would usually use. We cook the spaghetti in less water because we want the pasta water to be super starchy. The pasta water is an integral part of this dish.
Cool the pan down by adding a ladle of pasta water. Add quite a bit. Extract the noodles from the water and add them to the pan as well. Do not throw any of that pasta water away. You will probably need it. Add a third of the cheese to the noodles and another splash of the pasta water and toss everything together like your life depends on it. Repeat with the remaining cheese. You should have a silky smooth sauce to show for your efforts.
Before we move on, a note about the cheese. Use a high-quality Pecorino. Take the extra time to track down something authentic and go for something that is at least 24 months old. If you can’t find pecorino, you can use Parmigiano Reggiano just don’t tell your Roman neighbor about it. Make sure you shred the cheese nice and fine. Use a microplane and yes, it will look like a lot of cheese because it is. So much of the flavor of this dish relies on that cheese, it makes no sense to skimp here.
The moment your Cacio e Pepe is done, it begins to depreciate in terms of quality. That gorgeous smooth sauce we worked so hard to get will clump and thicken the longer we let it sit. So we want to plate it up pronto. And that means you should have your shaved pear ready to go. So let’s talk about that. Before even the olive oil hits the pan, your pears should be shaved and placed in an ice bath accented with lemon juice. Leave the pears to soak for 10 minutes before draining and patting dry. The ice water will cause the pear slices to curl slightly, and the lemon will keep the flesh from browning. To serve, pile a mound of shaved pear on top of the Cacio e Pepe and garnish with the sage you fried earlier. I’m sure this goes without saying but serve immediately.
And there you go, Cacio e Pepe with Shaved Pear and Fried Sage, a fun autumnal twist on a celebrated Roman classic. It may go against tradition but it tastes so damn good.
Cacio e Pepe with Shaved Pear and Fried Sage
- 1 Large pot
- 1 Large skillet
- 1 microplane
- 1 mandoline
- 1½ cups cold water
- 1 lemon juiced
- 8-10 ice cubes
- 1 red anjou pear
- 225g (8oz) uncooked spaghetti
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tbsp fresh ground pepper
- 8 fresh sage leaves
- 85g (3oz) high-quality pecorino Romano shredded finely on a Microplane **
- Pour the cold water into a bowl and add the ice cubes and lemon juice. Stir to combine.1½ cups cold water, 1 lemon, 8-10 ice cubes
- Shave the pears on a mandolin. The slices should be thin enough to see-through. Transfer the slices to the ice bath and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain the pears and pat dry with a paper towel. Set aside.1 red anjou pear
- Fill a large pot half of the way with water. *** Place it over high heat and bring to a boil. Salt the water and add the pasta. Cook until the pasta is just a little undercooked.225g (8oz) uncooked spaghetti
- While the water is boiling and the pasta is cooking, pour the olive oil into a large skillet. Add the pepper and place the skillet it over medium-low heat.¼ cup olive oil, 1 tbsp fresh ground pepper
- Once the oil is shimmering, add the sage leaves and fry until they turn a darker shade of green and the edges are golden. Transfer the sage leaves to a plate lined with a paper towel. Set aside.8 fresh sage leaves
- When the pasta is ready, reduce the heat under the pan to low. Add a ladleful of the pasta water to the pan and wait for it to stop bubbling. Add the pasta and a third of the cheese. Toss until the cheese disappears. Add another third of the cheese and another splash of the pasta water. A sauce should be starting to form. Add the remaining cheese and a little bit more pasta water if the pan starts to look a little dry. Toss until a smooth silky sauce coats each strand.85g (3oz) high-quality pecorino Romano
- Pile the pasta onto two plates. Sprinkle each with additional fresh ground pepper and pecorino. Finish the pasta with a crown of shaved pear and a few crispy sage leaves. Serve immediately.