It’s Time to Make Cacio e Pepe Balls, DC’s Most Indulgent Appetizer
The Red Hen's cacio e pepe arancini balls elevate a beloved dish to a very gooey next level
Think back to the very first days of lockdown (ugh) when everyone was baking their own sourdough, concocting that one banana bread recipe, and, of course, attempting to master the art of cacio e pepe. A deceptively simple Roman dish purportedly invented by local shepherds, cacio e pepe boasts just three ingredients – pasta, pecorino cheese, and black pepper – which, when united with the proper technique, result in a creamy, decadent dish that’s positively delicious.
“With a dish like cacio e pepe, you have a simple, comforting pasta dish that contains a level of indulgence unlike other pastas,” says chef Mike Friedman of Bloomingdale’s The Red Hen. “Eating it is like enveloping yourself in a warm blanket of Italian cheesy love.”
At his restaurant, Friedman’s cacio e pepe is an off-menu offering; it has also become his family’s most-requested comfort food dinner at home (Friedman himself is partial to roast chicken). Here, Friedman marries the rich flavors of the pasta dish with another Italian specialty far easier to share with a crowd: arancini.
Arancini is a traditionally Sicilian concoction of risotto formed into balls and fried. Usually flavored with saffron and made into baseball-sized spheres (both of which contribute to the name of the croquette, which is Italian for “oranges”), arancini today are beloved throughout the boot. In Rome, they’re known instead as supplì; this version is occasionally stuffed with gooey mozzarella to form supplì al telefono, so named for the stringy cheese evoking telephone cords. (Remember those?)
Whatever you call them, Friedman’s arancini are punchy and moreish. To make them, a homemade risotto is flavored with loads of funky sheep’s milk pecorino and a non-negligent amount of aromatic black pepper before being rolled into balls, breaded in crispy panko, and deep-fried.
For best results, Friedman suggests making the risotto a day before. “It gives the ingredients a chance to marry together,” he says, “and it also lends to the starch content of the rice itself.” He also notes that you’ll want your risotto base to be a bit firmer than if you were going to be enjoying it as-is. “A great risotto dish has a ‘all’onda’ texture, meaning wavy,” explains Friedman. “For arancini, you want the finished product to be much stiffer so you can ball it properly the next day.”
At the restaurant, Friedman serves these arancini with an herbed aioli for dipping, something that he says adds much-needed freshness to the finished plate.
“The cacio e pepe arancini are chock-full of pecorino cheese and black pepper and surrounded by a crispy, crunchy exterior,” he says. “With those components covered, I felt like it needed acid, and that’s where the aioli comes into play. Lemon juice, champagne vinegar, and mustard are key flavors in that sauce, and with a punch of parsley and basil, it cuts perfectly through the richness of the arancini.”
Make your own quick aioli by seasoning your favorite store-bought mayonnaise with the aforementioned seasonings, or opt for another dipping sauce like chimichurri, salsa verde, or even homemade marinara sauce to push these arancini to next-level greatness.
Cacio e Pepe Arancini
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup Spanish onion, small dice
- 1¾ cups arborio rice
- ½ cup white wine
- 4 cups chicken stock, warmed
- 1 cups pecorino romano, grated
- 1 tablespoon black pepper, freshly ground
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 cup AP flour
- 4 large eggs, whisked together
- 2 cups fine panko breadcrumbs
- 2 quarts canola oil, for frying
In a medium sauce pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When shimmering, add the onions and cook for 5-7 minutes, until translucent.
Add the arborio rice and mix well with the onions and olive oil. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the white wine. Cook until the wine is reduced by half, about three minutes.
Turn the heat up to medium-high. Start ladling the warm chicken stock into the risotto, mixing well. The goal is for the rice to release its starches while stirring. Mix constantly, adding more chicken stock as you go, for about 12 minutes.
Test a rice kernel for texture. Note – the rice must be completely cooked through, so no crunch. Keep cooking until the proper texture is achieved. When the rice is completely cooked through, turn the heat off. Add the pecorino romano cheese, black pepper and cubed butter and mix well. Season with salt to desired taste.
Spread into a sheet pan or Pyrex dish. Chill overnight.
The next day, make small balls with the arancini, about 1.5 oz each. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Set up the breading station – place the flour, eggs and panko breadcrumbs into separate bowls. Start breading the arancini by dipping them in the flour to completely coat the outside, then completely coat with the egg, then completely coat with panko breadcrumbs. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
In a high-sided sauce pot, heat the oil to 350 F. Gently drop the arancini in the oil and fry for 4-5 minutes, until deep golden brown and warm in the middle. Fry in batches so the oil isn’t overcrowded. Season with salt and serve immediately!
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