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story.lead_photo.caption Vegan Cacio e Pepe (The New York Times/David Malosh)

Cacio e pepe pasta — quite literally, cheese and pepper pasta — is as defined by its ingredients as peanut butter and jelly.

Like many classic Italian dishes, it requires just a few good-quality items (pasta, cheese and pepper) and attention to technique (emulsifying grated cheese and starchy pasta water into a silky, salty sauce). But it turns out that the cheese isn't entirely fundamental: Cacio e pepe's flavor is dominated by pepper and salt, not specifically cheese.

The combination of "salinity and pepper is the flavor that jolts you," said Brooks Headley, chef-owner of Superiority Burger, a vegetarian restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan.

Unlike vexing bait-and-switch concepts such as a cauliflower steak or pork-free mushroom bacon, this vegan take on cacio e pepe is shockingly similar to the original, delivering a result that is so uncannily similar, in mouth feel and flavor, that the people you feed might not realize it lacks cheese.

The secret lies in a combination of nutritional yeast, miso and cashew butter that packs a salty, complex funk to rival pecorino or parmesan.

Many vegan recipes for creamy pasta imitate the richness of cheese with soaked nuts, especially cashews, whirred into cream. Instead, store-bought cashew butter provides heft and creaminess to this dish in an instant.

Once limited to the realm of health food stores, the condiment is now widely available, and its subtle taste is less pronounced than that of other nut butters, imparting the necessary fat without flavor.

The requisite salt and funk come from the miso -- earthy and high in sodium -- and the nutritional yeast, which adds tang. (A staple in many vegan pantries, flaky nutritional yeast is a vitamin-rich seasoning that is often used to add cheesy flavor and bolster health benefits to a variety of dishes, from roasted vegetables to popcorn.)

Then, there's technique, elevating all the elements, in just three primary steps: Cook your pasta, toast your peppercorns in olive oil, then toss in your pasta with its starchy water and its flavorings (miso, nutritional yeast and cashew butter), adding just the right amount of pasta water to achieve that perfectly glossy-but-not-greasy coating.

Like the classic, it delivers a surprisingly complex, weeknight-friendly bowl of pasta with just a few vital ingredients. This version just happens to be vegan and defiantly delicious.

Vegan Cacio e Pepe

Kosher salt

2 ½ tablespoons nutritional yeast

2 tablespoons cashew butter

1 tablespoon white miso paste

1 ½ teaspoons whole black peppercorns, divided use

8 ounces dried spaghetti

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

½ lemon, squeezed as needed (optional)

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high. (Go easy on the salt here, since miso paste is high in salt.)

Combine the nutritional yeast, cashew butter and miso in a small bowl and stir into a thick paste. Crush the peppercorns using the flat side of a knife. (Or, you can roughly chop them or use a pepper grinder set to a coarse setting.)

Add the pasta to the boiling water, reduce the temperature to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes before al dente according to package instructions. Reserve 1 ¼ cups pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.

Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the empty pot and heat over medium. Add about two-thirds of the crushed black peppercorns and toast, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the miso mixture, and stir, then whisk in 1 cup reserved pasta water until sauce is smooth. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high, tossing it constantly and vigorously with tongs, until the sauce is glossy and the pasta is fully al dente, 1 to 2 minutes. Add an extra splash of reserved pasta water to keep the sauce glossy, if needed.

Divide among bowls. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with remaining crushed pepper and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.

Food on 03/18/2020

Print Headline: Vegan Cacio e Pepe replaces its cheese masterfully

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