Cacio e Pepe Brussels Sprouts

published Nov 5, 2022
christmas
Cacio e Pepe Brussels Sprouts Recipe

This vegetable side is a mash-up of cacio e pepe and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts.

Serves4 to 6

Prep20 minutes

Cook25 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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bowl of roasted brussels sprouts drizzled with cacio e pepe sauce
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

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Cacio e pepe is a traditional Roman pasta dish that has the comfort and simplicity of buttered noodles and the complexity of risotto. Although it translates to “cheese and pepper,” in Italian, as a whole, cacio e pepe is more than the sum of its parts: Pecorino Romano cheese and freshly ground black pepper (and sometimes a little butter) are tossed with pasta-cooking water to create a creamy sauce that coats pasta without the need for heavy cream or milk. The dish has become a go-to quick meal on nights when I need something comforting, but don’t feel like spending hours at the stove. Here, I’ve taken the flavors of cacio e pepe as inspiration for a vegetable side, swapping out the pasta for crispy roasted Brussels sprouts

Cacio e pepe Brussels sprouts are easy enough to make as part of a weeknight meal, like pantry pasta. But they’re also special enough to serve as a holiday side to your Thanksgiving turkey (or herby roasted turkey legs).

Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

Let’s Talk About the (Untraditional) Sauce

To state the obvious, Brussels sprouts and spaghetti cook very differently. While the cacio e pepe flavor profile in this recipe is reminiscent of the classic pasta, the sauce ingredient lists and technique are not. The inspiration for the sauce in the dish, and the method I finally landed on (after four to five rounds of testing!) come from a Serious Eats article that explains how to turn “bad melters good.” 

According to Serious Eats, the best melters out there are younger, high-moisture cheeses, like mozzarella, while the most difficult are drier, aged cheeses, like Pecorino Romano and Parmesan — two typically used in cacio e pepe sauce. To transform these bad melters, one must add starch (pasta water does this for the traditional dish), which is how a dish of cacio e pepe manages to be smooth and creamy.

In this recipe, the sauce is made as the sprouts are roasting and drizzled on before serving, so I needed a way to create a creamy sauce without the starchy pasta water. My final sauce recipe and method is based on my favorite food science expert J. Kenji López-Alt’s cheese sauce recipe, where he adds cornstarch to milk to create a smooth and gooey sauce. Ingenious!

Ingredients You’ll Need for this Recipe

  • Pecorino Romano and Parmesan Cheese: Traditionally, cacio e pepe uses just Pecorino Romano cheese, but I love the combination of the funky, saltier Pecorino with the more mild and familiar Parmesan.
  • Freshly ground black pepper: Don’t use the pre-ground stuff for this recipe — you want those spicy, freshly cracked flecks of black pepper for the ultimate zippy flavor here.
  • Cornstarch: The starch is crucial to ensure the cheese melts properly and doesn’t clump or break the sauce.
  • Whole milk: Although it’s not a traditional cacio e pepe ingredient, some liquid is needed to make a sauce. Milk is richer than plain water, but not too flavorful that it would risk overshadowing the stars of the show (the cheeses and pepper).

Cacio e Pepe Brussels Sprouts Recipe

This vegetable side is a mash-up of cacio e pepe and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts.

Prep time 20 minutes

Cook time 25 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds

    Brussels sprouts

  • 3 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons

    coarsely ground black pepper, divided, plus more as needed

  • 1 ounce

    Pecorino Romano cheese (about 1/2 loosely packed cup freshly grated or 1/3 cup store-bought grated), plus more for serving

  • 1 ounce

    Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 loosely packed cup freshly grated or 1/3 cup store-bought grated), plus more for serving

  • 1/2 cup

    whole milk

  • 2 teaspoons

    cornstarch

Instructions

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 450°F. Meanwhile, trim the stem ends from 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts. Halve the sprouts through the stem or quarter if large. Peel and discard any loose leaves if they are yellowed or darker in spots.

  2. Transfer the Brussels sprouts to a large bowl. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the coarsely ground black pepper. Toss to coat. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and arrange cut-side down in a single layer with a little bit of space in between the sprouts.

  3. Roast for 12 minutes. Toss and spread back into an even layer. Roast until the leaves are dark brown and crisp and the cut-sides of the sprouts are browned, 6 to 13 minutes more. Meanwhile, prepare the sauce.

  4. Finely grate 1 ounce Pecorino Romano cheese and 1 ounce Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup each), or measure out 1/3 cup store-bought grated each. Place both in a small saucepan. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper, 1/2 cup whole milk, and 2 teaspoons cornstarch.

  5. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, until melted, bubbly, and thickened, 5 to 10 minutes total. (It will look thin and grainy at first, but will thicken and come together after heating.) Remove the saucepan from the heat and cover to keep warm.

  6. Transfer the Brussels sprouts to a serving platter. Drizzle with the sauce. Serve with more grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese and coarsely ground black pepper.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: This dish is best eaten the day it’s made. However, you can make the sauce up to 2 days in advance and refrigerate in an airtight container. Reheat in the microwave in 30-second intervals, stirring between each, until fully melted.

Cheese grating: I like using a food processor the best to finely grate the cheese, but if you don’t have one, use the smallest holes on a box grater or a Microplane to grate the cheeses.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 5 days.