This adult mac and cheese dish is made with a cacio e pepe sauce which directly translates to cheese and black pepper in Italian. Since this recipe calls for only a few ingredients, choose them carefully. By the way, I’ve entered this recipe in a contest SideChef is having this month. Wish me luck!
Pick the best ingredients you can and you will be rewarded with a rich creamy peppery mac and cheese that beats all the rest.
How to make cacio e pepe pasta (or adult mac and cheese)
Use this recipe with fettuccini or angel hair pasta and forego Italian herbs for a more traditional cacio e pepe pasta. If you’re going for an adult macaroni and cheese, pick a small elbow or shell pasta.
- Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. When the butter has completely melted, bloom 2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper and 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning in the butter for 2 minutes until fragrant.
- Whisk in 3/4 cup milk.
- Continue to whisk vigorously and add 6 cold tablespoons of butter 1 tablespoon at a time. Do not add the next pad of butter until the previous one is completely incorporated. Lower the heat if the milk starts to bubble around the edges.
- Add 7 ounces of finely grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese and stir until melted.
- After the cheese has melted into the sauce, stir in 1/4 cup heavy cream. Turn heat off and set aside.
- Add 1/4 cup kosher salt to a large pot of water and bring to a boil. Add 16 ounces pasta and boil until tender, about 9 minutes for dried box pasta.
- When pasta is tender, drain it but reserve the water.
- Return the cheese sauce to low heat and stir until the sauce completely coats the pasta.
- Slowly add 2 tablespoons of pasta cooking water to the mac and cheese. Stir thoroughly. If the sauce is gritty, gently stir in another tablespoon or 2 of pasta water.
- Fold in 5 strips of cooked crispy bacon chopped and 26 (or 2 short sleeves) broken Ritz crackers.
- Transfer mac and cheese to a serving dish and top with 2 tablespoons of fresh chopped parsley and 2 teaspoons of fresh chopped sage.
Adult Mac and Cheese Pro Tips:
CREAMY TIP: The real secret to this recipe lies with the liquid gold. This is a term some chefs use to describe the leftover pasta cooking water. The starch in the warm water helps bind the sauce, gives it moisture, and creates an extra creamy texture. Don’t skip this step!
Make ahead – If you make the pasta ahead of time, run it until cool water to stop it from continuing to cook. Then drizzle it with olive oil to keep it from sticking.
Crunch – The crackers should be folded in immediately before serving. If not, they’ll lose their crunch.
Grated cheese – Instead of using a box grater to grate your cheese, pulse the cheese in a blender until it is ground into powder. This is a fast way to pulverize a hard cheese so it blends quickly into the sauce.
Fixing a broken sauce – If the sauce looks like it is starting to separate, whisk in a little pasta water.
Rewarming cold mac and cheese – Microwave pasta until warm or cover with tin foil and reheat in the oven. If the pasta looks dry, stir in a little reserved pasta water.
If you are making this sauce to go with a long noodle like spaghetti, cook the pasta until it’s al dente. This means it should not be crunchy but it should be firm. Don’t cook it until it is too tender. Each mouthful should have a substantial body to it.
This pasta dish is one that our family asks for again and again because not only does it seem to be the side dish that goes with everything, but it’s deeply satisfying.
Personally, I like this mac and cheese recipe over ones made with cheddar cheese because I love the spicy bite of good romano cheese. Pecorino romano is very bold and if that’s not to your liking, try asiago.
Asiago is milder and has a nuttier flavor. High-quality parmesan cheese is also a good choice and its flavor profile falls in between the other two.
Regardless of which hard cheese you choose, the simple combination of cheese, butter, milk, and freshly ground pepper is simply divine. It’ll please the most sophisticated of grown ups while delighting their inner child.
What to serve with Cacio e Pepe Adult Mac and Cheese
Try some of these to go with your pasta:
Adult Mac and Cheese | Cacio e Pepe Mac and Cheese
For a true cacio e pepe you should probably leave out the dried Italian seasoning, but I love it in this dish. Pick your favorite hard cheese like Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or Asiago to use in this sauce and you may find yourself licking your plate clean.
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter cold
- 2 teaspoons fresh ground pepper
- 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
- 3/4 cup milk
- 7 ounces parmesan grated
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 5 strips bacon cooked to a crisp
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh sage chopped
- 16 ounces small pasta shells
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepot over medium heat.
After the butter has melted, bloom pepper and dried Italian herbs in it until they smell fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Whisk in milk and continue to whisk vigorously while adding 1 tablespoon of cold butter at a time. Only add the next pad of butter after the previous one has been completely incorporated in the emulsion. Turn off heat and set aside after all the butter has been added.
While whisking butter into the milk, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. When boiling add 16 ounces of pasta and cook until tender, about 9 minutes.
When pasta is done, drain it and reserve the pasta cooking water.
Add cooked pasta to the cheese mixture and gently stir to completely coat pasta with sauce.
Return sauce to low heat and stir in heavy cream and fold in chopped bacon.
Slowly add 2 tablespoons of reserved pasta cooking water. Stir to incorporate and smooth out sauce. If sauce tastes gritty, continue to add pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time until smooth.
Serve mac and cheese in a casserole dish and top with fresh chopped parsley and sage.