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Cooking for One

As a Single Lady in My 30s, Making a Big Bowl of Cacio e Pepe Is How I Take Care of Myself

published Feb 9, 2021
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Pasta is my love language. Rigatoni, macaroni, spaghetti — whether twirled in Bolognese, mixed in marinara, or baked with mounds of melted mozzarella — eating a bowl of pasta is one of the ways I take care of myself and the people I love.     

In my 20s, I hosted the occasional dinner party for roommates and friends whenever I felt the urge to flex my burgeoning domesticity and had an extra hundred dollars in the bank from working overtime. Lasagna was often on the menu. In college, I made my mother’s ricotta-loaded lasagna recipe, and only realized that I had forgotten to add seasonings when I noticed my roommate grabbing the salt shaker in between bites. A few years later, and with more confidence than anyone should have in a kitchen full of dull knives, I made a bechamel-and-Bolognese number that took hours to make, and pushed dinner past 10 p.m. … on a Sunday. 

But until dinner parties are safe to host again, I’ll continue to make my favorite pasta-for-one dish: cacio e pepe. It’s a meal I don’t want to share. 

Unlike the lasagna and other laborious meals I’ve prepared to impress friends and love interests over the course of a decade, cacio e pepe requires none of the pomp and circumstance. It’s a humble Italian dish, consisting of few ingredients — traditionally pasta, cheese, and pepper — and takes less than 20 minutes to make. A good cacio e pepe is nutty and salty from the aged cheese, with a surprise kick from the black pepper.

When you’re 30 and single, there’s an expectation to make your life big, because there’s nothing holding you back from doing so. But sometimes, you just want something simple. Dating isn’t simple. Making genuine adult friendships isn’t simple. But cacio e pepe is. 

I’ve made a few lousy lasagnas, but I’ve never made a crappy cacio e pepe, even though the dish is easy to mess up. (Get distracted and your noodles become clumped with cheese, instead of swimming in a silky sauce.) But even at its worst, cacio e pepe will always taste good. And in the midst of a pandemic, when so many things feel out of control, predictability can be a blessing.  

Cacio e pepe can also be a blank slate for creativity, and when I’m by myself I don’t have to consider anyone else. I once dated a guy who didn’t like spicy food, and wouldn’t so much as allow a pinch of red pepper flakes near his dish. That relationship didn’t last, but my penchant for adding red pepper to every savory dish I make — including cacio e pepe — did.  

Chefs would scoff if they knew what else I included in my cacio e pepe recipe, which isn’t a recipe, but an assortment of staple ingredients I always have in my fridge and pantry. A pat of butter? Not standard, but in it goes. A leftover clove of garlic? Add that in too. During this pandemic work, play, and exercise have become regimented; they’re a daily check on my to-do list. Cooking dishes like cacio e pepe, though, is where I can go off-script — I feel secure enough in my familiarity of the base recipe to confidently play with it from time to time.

Most recipes cater to parties of four or six — the serving sizes are never friendly to solo diners. I cook for myself, and although I enjoy leftovers, I don’t enjoy six meals’ worth. But cacio e pepe can be easily halved or eyeballed to accommodate one serving size. (Trust me — I speak from a lot of experience here.)

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Amelia Rampe

After a day of back-to-back video conference calls and doom scrolling on Twitter, I make cacio e pepe in my work-from-home uniform: black leggings, a sweatshirt, and slippers. Cacio e pepe doesn’t demand you dress for dinner like the much sexier pasta alla vodka. This is comfort food. 

I mince a clove of garlic and sauté it with butter, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. I don’t usually have a hunk of Pecorino Romano, so I grate its close cousin, Parmigiano Reggiano. The cooked pasta, with the help of a few tablespoons of starchy water, gets mixed in with the cheese and garlic butter until combined.

I plate the cacio e pepe in my “good bowls,” the ones that haven’t been chipped out of love and haste, and settle in for a night of leisure. I call it my cacio e pepe ritual. A twice-a-month practice that elevates the experience of dining in during a pandemic. My cacio e pepe was always good, but the ritual of making it brings me joy. Like so many people, I’ve learned to prize the minutiae of what makes up my life: a hug from a roommate (one of the few people I’ve had physical contact with in the past year), a family FaceTime that keeps multiplying, and anything that reminds me of when life was a little more “normal.”

My 2020 resolutions (haha), which included trips abroad, a promotion, and opening myself to meeting someone, were meant to be validations of living a good life. I turned 30 in May, a birthday I assumed would feel significant, but in reality, felt like my 25th — but with cracking joints. At 30, I was still single, still figuring out my career, and still living with a roommate. I’m not an anomaly living in Los Angeles, and yet, I couldn’t help but think of the past decade, and ask myself: Did I do it right? Did I have fun even through the years of depression, heartache, terrible jobs, and awful roommates? 

The answer is yes. 

Cacio e pepe isn’t a cure for loneliness, nor can it fix a broken heart, or tell your toxic boss to go to hell, but it can be a way to take care of yourself in a world that’s so in flux. Love languages are useless unless you know how to give yourself what you want first.