This easy, lemony cacio e pepe is on the table in 20 minutes

This lemony cacio e pepe is ready in 20 minutes. (Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez)
This lemony cacio e pepe is ready in 20 minutes. (Photo for The Washington Post by Rey Lopez)

I've developed a new cooking habit. It was born out of a desire to have something to look forward to after days and days of wintry rain and cloudy skies. On cold, rainy days, I'll walk the dog after work - as quickly as possible, as neither of us like to be cold and wet - and make this lemony, cheesy, peppery pasta.

It's essentially cacio e pepe, that famous Roman pasta of cheese and black pepper, but with lemon zest and juice added, like a squeeze of sunshine.

There are lots of ways to make creamy, lemony pasta. You could add a dab of cream cheese to your sauce or a glug of heavy cream. You could make a soft roux, add milk and melt the cheese, lemon zest and pepper into that. You could even start with hot pasta and stir in ricotta and lemon, letting the small ricotta curds melt into the folds and ridges of the freshly cooked noodles.

For this recipe, I kept it simple. I'm a lazy cook at heart, and especially on cloudy days, I'm usually not feeling inspired to go hunting for a hundred different ingredients. Plus, I want to dirty as few dishes as possible.

Start by combining spaghetti, water and salt in a large saute pan over high heat. There's no need to boil the water first - just let it all come to a boil together. The one tip I want to share is that it's best if you can find bronze-cut or bronze die-cut pasta. This is made from dough that's been pushed through a bronze die. Something about bronze produces a rougher finish on dried pasta, and there are a few reasons this is desirable. One is that the pasta will have an almost velvety texture on its exterior once it's cooked. This helps sauce cling to it. Another is that bronze-cut pasta seems to release more starch into the water.

That starch is essential for a simple dish like cacio e pepe, where the pasta water forms the base of the sauce.

Once the noodles are al dente, dip a measuring cup in the pasta water and reserve at least 3 tablespoons. Drain the noodles, but let them stay a little wet. Then, return them to the empty pan. Mix together the pasta water, lemon zest, lemon juice, cheese and black pepper, making a little paste. Using tongs, toss this into the curls of the spaghetti, and then continue tossing until the cheese melts and the sauce turns glossy and gorgeous. I like it with more freshly cracked black pepper on top of each bowl.

Lemony Cacio e Pepe

Active time: 10 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

- If you can't have gluten use a gluten-free pasta.

3 cups water

8 ounces spaghetti

1/4 teaspoon fine salt

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large lemon)

3/4 cup (2 1/2 ounces) grated parmesan cheese, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, plus more as needed

In a 12-inch skillet, preferably with straight sides, over high heat, bring the water, spaghetti and salt to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat, reserve 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water, then drain. Transfer the pasta back to the skillet.

In a small bowl, whisk together the pasta water, lemon zest, lemon juice, cheese and pepper. Add the mixture to the warm, wet pasta and, using tongs, toss vigorously for a couple of minutes, until the sauce turns glossy and coats the pasta. Serve hot.

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