This Beloved Condiment Is the Secret Ingredient in My Favorite Creamy Pasta

published Mar 20, 2024
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Cacio e Pepe e Chili Crisp Recipe
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Cacio e Pepe Chili Crisp
Credit: James Park

As someone who is constantly thinking about chili crisp (something I even wrote a whole cookbook about!), I am a firm believer that chili crisp belongs in pasta. It’s a fantastic ingredient that amps up the spice and flavor of just about any dish, and pasta sauces are no exception. A dollop of chili crisp can bring some delicious heat to classic Bolognese sauce or help offset the richness of creamy carbonara.

And just like how I think about chili crisp all the time, Dan Pashman, the creator and host behind one of my favorite podcasts, The Sporkful, and the author of the cookbook, Anything’s Pastable: 81 Inventive Pasta Recipes for Saucy People, thinks about pasta more than anyone. After all, he invented a new pasta shape called Cascatelli back in 2021, and it instantly became a new classic.

I was so thrilled when Dan reached out to me to collaborate on his cookbook as one of the recipe developers. So I thought about what pasta dishes would pair well with chili crisp. After tasting (and cooking) countless combinations, I developed the perfect pasta dish: cacio e pepe chili crisp. I’m confident that this recipe will make you fall in love (all over again) with the magic that is chili crisp. 

Why I Love Cacio e Pepe e Chili Crisp 

I love classic cacio e pepe for many reasons. It’s cheesy, peppery, and so simple to make. Plus, the sauce is the perfect canvas for the flavors and spice of chili crisp.

My recipe calls for a blend of black peppercorns and Sichuan peppercorns, which add a slightly citrusy flavor and a wonderfully tingly effect to the dish. (Using Sichuan peppercorns is optional, but it adds so much character to the pasta.) Cracking both peppercorns in a mortar and pestle (or with a rolling pin) releases all the aromas, making your kitchen incredibly fragrant. 

I also love this recipe for its generous use of chili crisp. Unlike many recipes that call for a teaspoon or two, this pasta recipe calls for three whole tablespoons, and more for drizzling at the end. 

Surprisingly, the flavors of chili crisp aren’t overpowering because of the ample amount of Pecorino Romano that’s used in the sauce. Together, this dynamic duo creates a unique yet balanced pasta sauce that clings to the crevices of the wavy mafalde pasta, so when you go for a slurp, you experience a one-of-a-kind cheesy, spicy sensation. There’s a reason why this recipe became the cover of the cookbook!

How to Make Cacio e Pepe e Chili Crisp 

You’ll start by grinding a blend of peppercorns and toasting them in a dry skillet until fragrant. Melt some butter, add the peppercorns, and cook until lightly browned, then add a generous amount of chili crisp. Meanwhile, cook your pasta (preferably mafalde) in a pot of heavily salted water. Grate lots of Pecorino Romano and whisk the cheese with some starchy pasta until there are no lumps.

Once the pasta is ready, transfer the hot pasta directly to the skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the pasta in the chili crisp-peppercorn mixture. Transfer the pasta to the cheese bowl, and using tongs, rapidly toss everything together with more starchy pasta water until all the sauce has clinged onto the pasta. Transfer the pasta to serving bowls, and garnish with more Pecorino, sprinkles of crushed peppercorns, and chili crisp. 

If You’re Making Cacio e Pepe e Chili Crisp, a Few Tips 

  • Adjust your heat level to your preference. The main source of heat comes from a blend of peppercorns and chili crisp. And depending on what types of chili crisp you use and how much Sichuan peppercorns you use, the dish can be mild to very tingly and spicy. So feel free to adjust the ratio to your liking. If you are using Lao Gan Ma, as the recipe calls for, you can use 3 tablespoons of it since it’s not too spicy. But if you are using something extra spicy, start with 1 tablespoon and add more later.
  • Toss your pasta with the sauce well. Take your time and be sure to really toss the pasta with both the chili crisp-peppercorn butter mixture and cheese mixture. Since the pasta gets finished out of the pan without any heat, don’t pour too much starchy pasta cooking water into the bowl at once. Instead, add the water in smaller amounts to reduce the chances of it clumping together. 

Cacio e Pepe e Chili Crisp Recipe

Cook time 35 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoon

    kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon

    coarsely cracked black peppercorns (see tip)

  • 2 teaspoons

    cracked Sichuan peppercorns (optional, see note)

  • 3 tablespoons

    unsalted butter

  • 3 tablespoons

    Lao Gan Ma chili crisp, plus more for serving

  • 1 pound

    mafalde pasta (aka mafaldine or riccia; or use bucatini, pici, or cascatelli)

  • 1 cup (4 ounces)

    finely grated Pecorino Romano, plus more for serving

Instructions

  1. Bring 4 quarts of water and the salt to a boil in a large pot.

  2. Toast the black and Sichuan peppercorns, if using, in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-low heat, shaking the pan frequently, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes; transfer to a bowl, reserving the skillet.

  3. Melt the butter in the reserved skillet over medium-low heat. Add 2 teaspoons of the pepper mixture and cook, stirring, until the butter just begins to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the chili crisp and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chili flakes become fragrant and sizzle, 2 to 3 minutes; remove the pan from the heat. (At this point the sauce can sit, covered, for up to 2 hours.)

  4. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute less than the low end of the package instructions. Meanwhile, place the Pecorino in a large heatproof bowl and set aside. A few minutes before the pasta is done, transfer 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water to the bowl with the Pecorino and whisk until no lumps remain.

  5. Use tongs to transfer the pasta directly to the skillet and place it over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until any water has evaporated and the pasta is evenly coated with the chili mixture, 1 to 2 minutes.

  6. Immediately transfer the pasta to the bowl with the cheese mixture, scraping out the skillet. Add 1/4 cup of the pasta water and use the tongs to rapidly toss everything together until the pasta is well coated and the cheese is dissolved. (There should be extra sauce pooling in the bowl at first, but it should all cling to the pasta after 1 to 2 minutes of stirring. If the sauce looks too thick after 1 minute, add more pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time until smooth and creamy.)

  7. Transfer the pasta to a serving dish or individual bowls, sprinkle with more Pecorino and the remaining pepper mixture, and serve with more chili crisp, if desired.

Recipe Notes

Ingredient/Equipment Variations: Use a mortar and pestle, rolling pin, or the bottom of a pot or pan to crack whole black peppercorns (and Sichuan peppercorns, if using) into chunks. You want them coarser than if you had ground them in a pepper mill or spice grinder.

General Tips: You don’t have to use the Sichuan peppercorns to get great results, but they do add a depth to the heat that I think takes this dish to the next level.

From the book ANYTHING’S PASTABLE by Dan Pashman. Copyright © 2024 by Dan Pashman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.