Try this garlic chilli cacio e pepe for a spicy take on the classic. Filled with garlic, chillies, pecorino and toasted black pepper. It’s a flavour sensation that will tingle your taste buds and sooth your soul.
A good pasta dish can change your life and this is one that has changed mine.
I’m always trying my hand at different cuisines, and there is just something so comforting and rewarding about making pasta. I would usually make my own fresh pasta to pair, which in itself is incredibly therapeutic.
I’ve been coming home after busy days at work and all I’ve been able to think about is making this dish. The best part of this dish (other than the incredible flavour of course) is that it’s very pantry friendly.
This dish blew me away with its richness, depth and flavour. It’s one that I’m going to be making over and over, and I’m sure you will too.
Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e pepe is a dish that I’ve ordered in restaurants and made at home far too many times to remember. It’s just that comfort meal that soothes the soul and tantalises the taste buds with warmth from the pepper.
Not to mention the incredibly luscious and creamy sauce that coats each strand of spaghetti perfectly. But there is far more to this dish than one may think, and I think it truly takes a master of the cuisine or a very practiced hand to really do this justice.
Cacio e pepe directly translates to cheese and pepper. And that’s exactly what this dish is. It’s based solely on pecorino, black pepper, pasta water and dried pasta. That’s all it requires to make this classic dish.
However it feigns simplicity but in fact requires technique, skill and a little know how in order to perfect that creamy sauce. There’s far more to it than what meets the eye.
One must give credit to the incredible Italian techniques involved in this dish as it’s easy for it to go wrong.
The dish is said to be one of Italy’s oldest recipes, originating from Rome. It’s said to have been created by Roman farmers as the food of sustenance but also one that was practical to make.
The ingredients rarely spoiled and hence it made it suitable for their long travels. Also the simplicity of cacio e pepe and the fact it only required 3 ingredients made this the perfect food of choice.
Garlic Chilli Cacio e Pepe
I love a classic cacio e pepe, it’s a perfect dish in itself. Part of me was telling myself to leave it be because it’s a dish that doesn’t need to be played around with.
On the other hand I had my inner spice fiend urging me to throw in some garlic and chillies. Needless to say my inner spice fiend won… somehow it always does.
Combining the pecorino with black pepper, garlic, and chillies just created this total flavour sensation. It’s creamy and insanely rich but it has warmth running through every bite.
The flavours seem reminiscent of an arrabbiata, for which you can find my Spicy Arrabbiata Sauce recipe here.
But it’s not an arrabbiata in any way, shape, or form.
Not only do the spices compliment each other beautifully, they pair perfectly with the butter and pecorino to create this bold and feisty garlic chilli cacio e pepe.
It’s honestly still a simple recipe, and it’s still very pantry friendly. It’s a mere handful of ingredients and a little bit of skill. If you love a classic cacio e pepe but you’re also a spice fiend like myself, then this is without a doubt the perfect recipe for you.
This Garlic Chilli Cacio e Pepe recipe is:
- Pantry friendly
What you’ll need
The full recipe is at the end of the blogpost
For this recipe you’ll need:
- Dried spaghetti/bucatini – it has to be dried. Dried pasta will provide the necessary starchy water to form the sauce. Fresh pasta will break during the ‘mantecatura’ stage which will be explained later in this blogpost. A good quality pack of dried pasta does make a difference here in comparison to the supermarket versions so try and source this if possible
- Red bird’s eye chillies – small but fierce. Try and source fresh chillies as it will provide a different and more vibrant note compared to dried chilli flakes
- Kashmiri chilli powder – not traditional whatsoever however it will provide a vibrant colour and a background heat that differs from the fresh chillies
- Shallot – will provide a subtle sweetness to help balance out the other strong flavours
- Butter – incredible richness. Do not skip (please)
- Pecorino – this is an essential component and it cannot be substituted. This is an Italian hard cheese that is different from parmesan. I purchase the pecorino from Waitrose or Tesco (UK supermarkets) as it’s vegetarian. It has a nutty and salty flavour that is necessary for this dish. Pre ground pecorino won’t work here, it needs to be grated fresh
- Black peppercorns – the whole peppercorn, not the pre ground stuff!
- Fresh parsley
The fresher the better
With just a handful of ingredients required for this garlic chilli cacio e pepe, the quality of those ingredients can make a huge impact on the final dish.
Using fresher ingredients, or those of a higher quality will allow you to bring out the best that this dish has to offer. It’s only a few ingredients, make them count.
Fresh chillies are highly recommended and I use red bird’s eye chillies for this. They’re small but they’re fierce and pack a lot of heat. Fresh chillies have a remarkably different taste to dried chilli flakes, which I often find quite one-dimensional.
If you want to opt for a milder version of this dish, you can either de-seed the chillies or use a different variety that’s not as spicy.
A good quality pecorino also makes a world of a difference. I use the Waitrose or Tesco brands of pecorino, which although are good, they won’t be as great as a traditional pecorino romano DOP from Rome.
However more often than not those cheeses contain animal rennet and hence are not vegetarian friendly. If you’re vegetarian like myself then it’s totally fine to use the same pecorino that I have, it will still produce a beautiful dish.
Last but not least, the black peppercorns. They must be the whole peppercorns, pre-ground black pepper will not do this recipe justice.
In fact if you don’t have whole peppercorns I’d actually recommend you don’t make this dish until you do. You won’t get the same result.
The whole peppercorns needs to be toasted and ground right before they’re added in to this dish. The flavour and fragrance of the whole toasted peppercorns are unparalleled so please purchase these.
Types of cheeses for cacio e pepe
The traditional cheese to use is pecorino romano, which is an Italian hard cheese made from sheep’s milk. It’s a salty, nutty and slightly sharp cheese.
There can be huge variations in flavour dependent on quality and maturity of the cheese. Generally the more mature the pecorino, the sharper its taste.
This is the best cheese to use to keep with tradition and to get the right flavour profile.
As a second option, parmigiano reggiano may also be used. This is another Italian hard cheese however it’s derived from cow’s milk rather than sheep.
Parmigiano reggiano is also a complex flavoured cheese but generally more mild in flavour in comparison to pecorino. Parmigiano reggiano is also usually made with an animal derived rennet, I’m yet to find a vegetarian version.
In all fairness I think either cheese would work well and both would produce a beautiful dish. Pecorino romano keeps with tradition and the correct flavour profile. But feel free to use either of the two.
The main thing to remember would be to use the highest quality of pecorino/parmigiano that you can find. It must be the block and not the pre-ground cheese as they are often mixed with starch and anti-caking agents which impact their ‘meltability’.
- Good quality ingredients mean a good quality cacio e pepe
- Grate the pecorino as finely as possible, it needs to almost be like snow in texture. The more finely grated it is, the creamier the sauce will be
- Heat control will be the biggest challenge here. Over-heating the cheese will cause the proteins to separate and stick to the bottom of the pan, thus not forming the creamy luscious sauce we so desire
- Work quickly in the final stage, i.e. the ‘mantecatura’ which I’ll explain below
Mantecatura – the most important part
Mantecatura is derived from the Italian verb mantecare which is the technique of creating a creamy and smooth sauce/ristotto by adding starchy water or fat at the end of cooking.
For this garlic chilli cacio e pepe, this is a fundamental technique in order to achieve the final texture for the sauce. This is done by boiling the pasta in salty water and reserving the leftover starchy water once the pasta has boiled.
The pasta water is then added along with finely grated pecorino at the end of cooking. This process will then allow for emulsification of the starchy water with the fat from the butter and pecorino, in turn producing a smooth creamy sauce.
Sounds easy right? If only!
The key here is the temperature of the pan. If it’s too hot the cheese will ‘split’ and the proteins will coagulate at the base of the pan. This won’t create a creamy sauce and unfortunately the sauce will remain watery.
I’ll explain my tips in the step-by-step below.
How to make this Garlic Chilli Cacio e Pepe (photos)
1) First toast the black pepper on a low heat until fragrant
2) Transfer to a pestle and mortar
3) Grind coarsely, we want some texture!
4) Melt some butter in a wide pan over a low heat
5) Add the ground black pepper and lightly toast
6) Sauté the shallots until translucent
7) Add the finely sliced garlic and chilli
8) Sauté the garlic and chilli until the garlic turns lightly golden
9) Add the Kashmiri chilli powder
10) Toast the chilli powder and allow it to infuse and mix into the butter
11) Finely grate the pecorino. Use the side which provides the finest texture – it should almost be like snow
12) Add a ladle of pasta water into the pan with the heat off
13) Add the spaghetti (which should be just slightly undercooked)
14) Add the pecorino
15) Mix the spaghetti quite vigorously in order to emulsify the pasta water and pecorino to form a creamy sauce. Finish with parsley.
How to make this Garlic Chilli Cacio e Pepe (video)
Frequently asked questions
My sauce stayed watery and the cheese stuck to the bottom of the pan. What happened?
Your heat was too high and it caused the cheese to ‘split’ and the proteins to coagulate at the bottom of the pan.
My spaghetti/bucatini started breaking when emulsifying the sauce. What happened?
Your pasta was overboiled, make sure to boil it for 1 minute less than the packaging. It should be 1 minute before al dente, as it will finish cooking in the sauce.
If you enjoyed this recipe
Please do let me know! Leave a review and a rating below, I’d love to know how you got on.
Until then, happy cooking!
Garlic Chilli Cacio e Pepe
- 250 g dried spaghetti/bucatini
- 1 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 1 shallot diced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 2 red bird’s eye chillies minced
- 2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
- 50 g salted butter
- 70 g pecorino romano very finely grated (also keep extra for garnishing or balancing the sauce*)
- Handful of parsley roughly chopped
- Start boiling your spaghetti or bucatini in salted boiling water for 1 minute less than the packaging instructions
- Toast the black pepper on a low heat until fragrant ~about 1-2 minutes
- Transfer to a pestle and mortar and grind to a coarse powder. Don’t grind finely, we want to retain some texture
- Then melt some butter in a wide pan over a low heat and add the black peppercorns
- Next add in the shallots along with the garlic and chilli and sauté over a medium heat until the shallots are translucent and the garlic has turned lightly golden
- Place the heat back on low and add the Kashmiri chilli powder. Toast the spice and allow it to infuse into the butter
- Turn the heat off and add a good ladle of the starchy pasta water to the butter mix, followed by the pasta
- Then add the grated pecorino and vigorously mix the paste to start emulsifying the pasta water, cheese and butter
- *To balance the sauce: if it’s too thick then add more pasta water to thin out the sauce. On the contrary if it’s too thin then add more grated pecorino
- Finally add the parsley and serve immediately