Oh, baby. We are BACK.
And by “BACK,” I mean that I have been completely incapable of doing anything for the past 5 days due to a nasty, nasty bout of the flu. My mom referred to this as being retribution for taking a long, amazing vacation, and I’ll admit that it feels that way a bit.
Where was I?
Oh yes. The #dreamtrip. We were lucky enough to spend two and a half weeks exploring a ton of different parts of Italy, which is something I’ve dreamed about for what feels like ever. I’m keenly aware that the origin of this yearning may in fact have been related to the very first time that I read Eat, Pray, Love – call me basic, but that shit was inspiring. Who doesn’t want to take four months off (ideally, with the bill footed by your publishers) to eat tagliatelle and stare at the David all day? I do. I want that.
I’m going to attempt to split our trip up into separate posts, but first, I wanted to share with you our very favorite culinary adventure from that trip: Pici.
[this is not pici. this is wine.]
I’ll start by saying that we discovered pici in Montepulciano, a tiny, medieval gem of Tuscan wine country that has done stole my heart. We decided to spend a few days there due to a) my vivid fantasy of waking up and staring at never-ending rolling Tuscan hills and Cyprus trees and b) the recommendation of a trusted friend (thanks, Nathan!).
Montepulciano is a complete and total dream. It is the stuff that all of my Tuscan countryside fantasies are made of. Our trip there started with two snafus, starting with the fact that the hotel I booked actually wasn’t booked (great) and followed by a totally crucial wrong turn on the drive from Florence (sorry, FIRENZE) to Montepulciano that ended up adding an hour to our trip (even better). Luckily, we were on vacation in Tuscany, so there wasn’t much to complain about in general and we both agreed to suck it up and stop being cranky.*
When we arrived at our newly booked B&B, the lovely owner, Theresa, wasn’t ready for us yet. So in the grand tradition of hoteliers in a time crunch, she sat us down at a beautiful outdoor table, put down a bottle of wine and two glasses, and told us to have at it while she cleaned our room. I would like to declare openly here that I was completely and totally fine with this method of killing time.
OKAY BUT WHAT IS PICI
Calm down! I will tell you. I will tell you right now.
Pici is a delicious hand-rolled, fat and rustic style of spaghetti. Here’s something that’s true: in general, I HATE spaghetti. Of all the boring, uninspiring foods, I feel like spaghetti really takes the cake. Pasta in general is so often served in a lackluster way, and a lot of storebought, boxed pasta is just plain bad. There are, of course, exceptions – Italian restaurants with fresh spaghetti make some seriously baller meals. However. I thought it was important for you to know where I was coming from.
Theresa, our aforementioned host in Montepulciano, made a big point of telling us (in her broken but totally charming English) that pici was a southern Tuscan specialty that should be tried during our trip. We consider ourselves to be good listeners, so we ordered it like 3 times in the 6 or so meals that we were there (two of which were breakfast).
Pici is traditionally served in one of two ways: with a wild boar ragu (srsly – see pic below, ’twas delish), or all’ aglione, which is in a tomato garlic sauce. Another way to serve it is “pici briciole,” which is pici tossed in olive oil, garlic and toasted bread crumbs. HEL-LOOOOOOOO, nurse. In Siena, we had amazing pici while sitting in Piazza del Campo, and it was prepared cacio e pepe style. We both fell in love and I knew that I had to recreate it at home.
Please prepare yourself for a bunch of crappy iPhone photos, because I took most of these while I was sick and that’s the end of qualifying this post. You are welcome for the pasta porn.
Cacio e Pepe, much like Montepulciano itself, is yet another dream within a dream. I never totally understood the concept of a pan sauce, let alone one that uses pasta water as a crucial part of the recipe – but it is like the most grown up, incredibly quick mac and cheese. It is dreeeeaaamy dreamy creamy. Love it. You need to make it!
It turns out that combining these two recipes ends up getting to be just a little bit time-sensitive, since fresh pasta doesn’t need to cook for very long, and the cacio e pepe sauce requires that pasta water as its base ingredient. So. This requires some paying of attentions!
I would like to say that I know that homemade pasta seems like a little bit of a stretch. To you, I say this: it’s not. It is delicious and totally manageable. I made this when I had the flu, which is SERIOUSLY saying something because other than this I had nothing but chicken noodle soup for 5 days. That’s too much, in case you’re wondering.
Make this pasta! You will NOT be sorry.
Homemade Tuscan Pici, Cacio e Pepe style
- 350 g (or approximately 1.5 cups) tipo 00 flour, and a bit extra for dusting* *you can substitute regular white flour here if you need to!
- 150 g (or approximately 2/3 cup) semolina flour, and a few extra tablespoons for dusting
- pinch of table salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 6 oz water
- 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed, divided
- 1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
- 3/4 cup finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan (I used Grana Padano)
- 1/3 cup finely grated Pecorino (MMMMMM)
For the pasta:
Mix together the two flours and the salt in a large bowl, and use a whisk to combine well. Make a well in the center of the flours, and add the olive oil and crack in the egg.
It’s kneading time – and this gets sticky. Have some extra flour on hand, because this dough has the capability of getting VERY sticky initially. You’ll want to add more flour until it’s kneadable – don’t overdo it, though.
After kneading for 5-8 minutes, the dough should be sticky and fairly elastic. Wrap it in saran wrap and throw it in the fridge, and leave it for anywhere from 30 minutes to a whole day. I only waited for a half hour, and it was delicious, so I’m sure it only gets better with time.
Once the dough is done sitting in the fridge, roll it out with a rolling pin (make sure you have flour on hand) until it’s somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick. You don’t want it too thin, but there is a happy medium here!
Use a knife to cut the dough into thin strips. Note that each time you cut away a strip, it will start to stick back to the original dough unless you pay attention.
Use lighly oiled fingers to take each strip and roll it into a rough, rounded, spaghetti-like shape – it will be quite a bit thicker than spaghetti, though. Have a cookie sheet ready, sprinkled with semolina flour, and place each noodle on there to hang out (you may need to loop it around – some of them get really long).
Once all of your pasta is ready, bring heavily salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta for 8-11 minutes, or until al dente.
But WAIT! Don’t totally drain the pasta water! Make sure to hold on to about a cup for later. And by later, I mean NOW.
For the sauce:
Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook, swirling pan, until toasted, about 1 minute. You can do this while the pasta is still cooking if you want to, but you might need to turn off the heat depending on timing.
Add 1/2 cup of your reserved pasta water to the skillet and bring it all to a simmer. Add the pasta back in, and the remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add the Grana Padano, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. NOTE: At this point, I felt like my sauce was mega watery, so we removed a few tablespoons of liquid. Don’t remove too much, because it really thickens up over the next few minutes!
Remove the pan from heat and add the Pecorino (I say again: MMMMMMM), stirring and tossing until the cheese has melted, the sauce coats the pasta, and the pasta is al dente. (You can add more pasta water if the sauce seems dry, although I definitely did not have that problem.) Transfer pasta to bowls and serve.