"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

Mistakes were made: Spaghetti cacio e pepe (with cheese globs)

by Julie Tilsner on June 12, 2007

in Good Ideas Gone Bad, Dinner

Practice makes perfect, yes? Except maybe not in my case. Better advice for me might be: Quit when you’re ahead.

The April 25th L.A. Times Food Section featured a simple recipe that caught my eye. Spaghetti with crushed black pepper and pecorino cheese. It sounded just right. The writer, Leslie Brenner, raved about its delicious simplicity.

So I tried it on myself, to impressive results. I ate it out of a big bowl on the couch in front of the TV one night. And it was good. But if you make and consume something delicious by yourself, does it count? Do you get credit for having made something extraordinary? If a tree falls in the forest…..

No way, baby. I wanted credit for this superb new pasta dish of mine. I have a great need for almost constant validation.

Enter Tony, my ever-willing guinea pig.  A little gun shy around spices, I showed him the article before embarking. I’ve made it before, I told him. And it’s a lovely, creamy, cheesy, elegant pasta dish with a little kick of pepper. Tony nodded happily. He was starving, he said. And game.

First mistake: Never boast. Not when you’re a Bad Home Cook. It merely attracts the attention of the Kitchen Gods, who then collect above your stove, waiting for the fun to start. By feeling cocky in my ability to recreate this dish, I’d already set the stage for disaster.

Here’s the recipe: From the new cookbook, Lidia’s Italy: 140 Simple and Delicoius Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most, by Lidia Matticchio, who apparently now has a cooking show of similar description.

Salt for the pasta water

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns or more to taste

1 pound spaghetti

1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino cheese, or more to taste.

Bring a big pot of slated water to boil. Meanwhile, grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar or spice grinder.

Warm up a big bowl for mixing (you can apparently use some of the pasta water for this…?) Cook the pasta until al dente, then quickly lift if from the pot with tongs. Let it drip briefly, then transfer into the warm bowl.

Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper into the pasta, and toss. As you toss, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments.

Could this be any easier?

Alas. There were ominous signs that this wouldn’t reach its full potential right from the start. No sooner had I started to pull out the pasta with the tongs than I realized I’d forgotten to salt the water.

The kids were running in and out. Tony was telling me something about work. The kitchen iPod was playing something fun. All standard Monday-evening fare. But apparently I can’t hold a conversation and cook at the same time. Not even something simple, like pasta. I didn’t even have a glass or two of wine to blame.

I plopped the pasta into a big bowl I hadn’t bothered to warm because, frankly, I didn’t know how. I threw in a tablespoon of crushed peppercorns and 3/4 cups of grated cheese.

Second mistake: Get fresh ingredients. Black peppercorns and grated pecorino and Romano cheese from Trader Joe’s are arguably better than table pepper and Kraft Parmesan in a can, but they’re no match for the real, whole foods. I could have gone to Bristol Farms and bought a $7 bottle of peppercorns to grind in my mortar, and an $10 wedge of imported pecorino. But would it have improved the end result? Not in my case.

Tony tucked into his bowl. “Ooh. Peppery.” He’s a wimp when it comes to this sorta thing, so I tried a swirl myself. Ouch. Peppery.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“No, no, no problem,” he said, taking another mouthful.

He chewed. “Well, it’s got a real kick, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s a kick all right.”

Third mistake: No sense of proportion. My proportions are
always off. I didn’t cook a pound of pasta, per the recipe, so the
other measurements were off. I used too much pepper. And not enough
cheese. Or maybe too much cheese. Who the hell knows?

He coughed a little. He cleared his throat. Finished the water in his glass. Looking like a man who’s taking it like a man, he raised his fork for another go. Then he stopped short.

“What is this?” Tony pointed at a lump in the bowl.

“It’s cheese.”

“I thought it was a piece of chicken or something.”

“No. There’s no chicken in this dish. Just pasta, cheese and pepper.”

“Oh.” He put down his fork.


We sat quietly. Each of us carefully inspecting the table in front of us.

“I guess some of the cheese didn’t melt right,” I admitted.  “So. I guess that’s just a cheese globule. Or something.”


Fourth mistake: Learn how to make a decent cheesy sauce using hot pasta water and the cheese you’ve sprinkled over the pasta. This can’t be hard. It’s just basic chemistry. This is probably one of the first things they teach you in Italy.

Silence had descended on my kitchen. Nobody was eating anything. I had completely botched the simplest recipe in the universe. Again.

“Look,” I said. “I can just boil some more water and make you plain pasta with some sauce.”

Tony shook his head violently. “Oh no! No! Really. I’m almost full.”

“But you were starving when you got here.”

“You know, honestly? I’m eating lighter these days. This is fine.” He dabbed his lips with his napkin and pushed the bowl away.

I thought about offering him him some of the microwaveable butternut squash cubes I’d made my kids eat earlier, but thought better of it.

More bread? Tea? Rolaid? He looked at me almost in relief. “Some tea would be nice, thanks.”

With lots of honey, to coat the pepper.

Fifth mistake: Always have a backup. If I’d made that tortilla Espanola like I’d considered doing that afternoon, I would have had an effective and pleasant way of saving face. As it was, I’ve decided that I’m NOT going to be discouraged. I’m going to be pissed off enough to try this simple, three-ingredient dish again. And again if necessary until I get it down.

But I think I’ll need another guinea pig.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

flutter June 12, 2007 at 6:01 pm



Bad Home Cooking June 12, 2007 at 9:55 pm

Oh good. So I didn’t lose my guinea pig then…brave man. Come around again for another try…I’ll make it in isolation and see how it turns out…


Holler June 12, 2007 at 4:21 pm

Nevermind it happens to us all! I made some pasta salad (which Graham loves) and thought that rocket, would be a great addition! Well it went down like a lead balloon and I have been told that I don’t take criticism about my cooking well! I just can’t win. I thought I was adding flavour. Men aren’t very skilled at putting on a good face, are they?


AT June 12, 2007 at 9:43 pm

Well BHC, the consistency and texture of the pasta was at hand, and there was an awfully cute little cheese globule to stare at, but I mostly gazed at your beauty that evening anyway..thanks for inviting me to dinner! 🙂


JanTink June 14, 2007 at 9:49 am

I’ve learned that a dish that tastes fabulous the first time almost NEVER tastes fabulous the second time you make it, so you are not alone!
ANd I thought I was the only one who would eat a whole bowl of pasta by myself sitting on the couch…. 😉


Tim June 15, 2007 at 5:50 pm

I give you big points for trying. Yes, bread as a backup is a great idea. I won’t try a recipe unless I’ve tried it 5 times. If I have people over, I don’t drink until I’m well into the end zone. I talk to people, and check the fires, recipe, oven, measuring cups, constantly, even when I’ve just checked them. Thus my blog would be Neurotic Home Cooking. But still! Kudos for trying. I’ve got a recipe for tomatoes and pasta that is killer and even easier than this. Let me know if you want it….


elfini June 24, 2007 at 10:20 am

Hey BHC – I might have the solution to your cheese gobule problem. Freeze the cheese first – then call me!!


Robert August 26, 2007 at 10:31 pm

You are an INCREDIBLE writer! Who are you. I was continuiously laughing OUT LOUD! I was googling this recipe, being one of Lidia’s – when I came upon your wonderful story. A story AND a recipe! Now, that’s really entertaining! I got my moneys worth. It’s people like you that make me glad I now have a computer! Send me an e-mail. I’d like to know if you’ve written other stuff. Just curious. Take care robertongentry@att.net


Seraphine February 18, 2008 at 11:56 am

I’ve had noodles come out in a clump before. Sorry, I mean, pasta.
That’s why god invented peanut butter and jelly sandwishes.


carol October 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Thanks, that was a good story. I have had the same issue with globby cheese (from deli purchased grated pecorino romano).

Once I had the sauce come out a little more creamy. But the water was reduced in amount and kind of luke warm.

I think the cheese melting into globs has to do with the high temperature and amount of water ratio. But I don’t exactly know what it is supposed to be. I suppose one of my issues it that I usually try to make this dish using leftover pasta (originally cooked al dente but reheated with some olive oil) so it lacks that starchy boiled pasta water for the sauce.

Good luck to you. Salute.


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