Cacio e pepe pasta — quite literally, cheese and pepper pasta — is as defined by its ingredients as peanut butter and jelly.
Like many classic Italian dishes, it requires just a few good-quality items (pasta, cheese and pepper) and attention to technique (emulsifying grated cheese and starchy pasta water into a silky, salty sauce). But it turns out that the cheese isn’t entirely fundamental: Cacio e pepe’s flavor is dominated by pepper and salt, not specifically cheese.
Unlike vexing bait-and-switch concepts like a cauliflower steak or pork-free mushroom bacon, this vegan take on cacio e pepe is shockingly similar to the original. The secret lies in a combination of nutritional yeast, miso and cashew butter that packs a salty, complex funk to rival pecorino or Parmesan.
And, like the classic, it delivers a surprisingly complex, weeknight-friendly bowl of pasta with just a few vital ingredients.
Vegan Cacio e Pepe
A staple in many vegan pantries, flaky nutritional yeast is a vitamin-rich seasoning that is often used to add cheesy flavor and bolster health benefits to a variety of dishes, from roasted vegetables to popcorn.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
1/4 cup cashew butter
2 tablespoons white miso paste
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
16 ounces dried spaghetti
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 lemon, squeezed as needed (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high. (Go easy on the salt here, since the miso paste added in Step 4 is high in salt.) Add the nutritional yeast, cashew butter and miso to a small bowl and stir into a thick paste. Crush the peppercorns using the flat side of a knife. (Alternatively, you can roughly chop them or use a pepper grinder set to a coarse setting.)
2. Add the pasta to the boiling water, reduce the temperature to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes before al dente according to package instructions. Reserve 2 1/2 cups pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.
3. Add 1/4 cup olive oil to the empty pot and heat over medium. Add about two-thirds of the crushed black peppercorns and toast, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the miso mixture, and stir, then whisk in 1 3/4 cups reserved pasta water until sauce is smooth. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high, tossing it constantly and vigorously with tongs, until the sauce is glossy and the pasta is fully al dente, 1 to 2 minutes. Add an extra splash of reserved pasta water to keep the sauce glossy, if needed.
5. Divide among bowls. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with remaining crushed pepper and serve immediately.