Za’atar Cacio e Pepe

This za’atar cacio e pepe from Ottolenghi ingeniously gives Rome’s classic creamy Parmesan and black pepper pasta middle Eastern flair with the addition of za’atar seasoning.

A ceramic bowl filled with za'atar cacio e pepe and topped with fresh marjoram leaves.

The line between one classic and another blurs in this za’atar cacio e pepe. Cheesy strands of pasta are embellished with more than just the classic pepper, taking an almost herbaceous lilt from the centuries-old spice blend.–Renee Schettler

*What is za'atar?

Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that contains thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac. Sumac has a lemony smack that’s pretty darn potent. The amount of sumac in a particular za’atar blend can vary dramatically, so you may want to play around with a couple different brands of za’atar or homemade za’atar recipes you toss together yourself.

Za’atar Cacio e Pepe

  • Quick Glance
  • Quick Glance
  • 20 M
  • 35 M
  • Serves 4
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In a wide saucepan over medium-high heat, bring 5 1/2 cups of water to a boil, then season with 3/4 teaspoon salt. Add the bucatini and cook according to package directions until al dente, stirring every now and then so the strands remain submerged but don’t stick together or to the bottom of the pan.

Drain the pasta, reserving all of the cooking water (you should have about 2 1/4 cups—if not, top it off with a little hot water).

In a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter until bubbling, then add the 1 tablespoon za’atar and pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the reserved 2 1/4 cups cooking water, bring to a rapid boil, and cook until the mixture is slightly reduced and almost silken, about 5 minutes.

Vigorously stir the pasta into the sauce. Add the Parmesan in 2 batches, continuing to stir vigorously as you go and waiting until the first half has melted before adding the next. Once all the Parmesan has completely melted, add the pecorino, continuing to stir until it, too, has melted and the sauce is smooth and silken.

Transfer the pasta to a rimmed platter and finish with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of marjoram, if using, and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons za’atar along with a small pinch of salt. Serve immediately.

Tester tip: If using homemade za’atar, you may need to season the finished pasta dish with a little extra salt.
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Recipe Testers' Reviews

Za’atar has become a spice increasingly used in the West with the discovery of Middle Eastern cuisine, and this is due in part to chef Yotam Ottolenghi and the success of his cuisine, and, of course, his books. Using za'atar to season a dish as perfect as cacio and pepe created another perfect dish, za’atar cacio and pepe. In addition to the creaminess of the cheeses and the flavor of the pepper, there is also the strong flavor of this oriental mixture, with herbs, spices, and seeds. The result is a pleasant, full of flavor, and well-balanced dish. Perfect.

I used store-bought za’atar.

I love pasta (who doesn't?!) and this did not disappoint! I love the ease of making the sauce with the starchy pasta water. The end result of the al dente pasta with creamy, cheesy sauce with the hint of spice was delicious. I thought the combination of za'atar and pepper might be very pronounced but it was very well balanced.

This is a great recipe to prepare all the ingredients in advance and then, when it's time to cook, it all comes together very quickly. I could not find fresh marjoram so did not use it. It did need a good sprinkle of salt after it was all finished.

I served 4 and the portions were probably a bit heavier than we would normally eat.

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