Pasta alla Carbonara
The traditional preparation for this classic Roman dish using no cream.
The summer before my freshman year in high school, my family moved out of San Francisco and to a neighboring town a few miles away. This meant that I spent my first year in a new school trying to find my place in a sea of new faces. I was extremely shy which severely limited my opportunities to make friends. I was too timid to join a club or participate in sports so the friends I made were those who sat around me in class. At least by the end of that first year I knew a small cluster of people I could consider friends and I didn’t feel so much like the new girl.
During my sophomore year, things continued to improve. I had become acquainted with most of the people in my class and also some upperclassmen but it was a passing comment from a friend that prompted an important revelation that I have never quite forgotten.
One day, as we were walking to class, this new friend said, “You’re actually really nice! We were afraid to talk to you for a while because we thought you were a snob!”
Me? A snob? I couldn’t believe it, but I suppose it was a valid observation to make about me at the time. I was so petrified of other people that I hid behind a mask of indifference. I never said hello first when walking down the hallway for fear that I would be ignored and humiliated. I never dared show that, yes, I wanted to smile and greet you but only if I knew that the gesture would be reciprocated. Oh, to be young and insecure.
I took that lesson to heart. I would like to think that I have made myself much more approachable since then, even deliberately putting myself in situations (through the rest of high school, college and later in my career) that forced me to be in front of the public and to make the first social/professional move. It has been liberating. I am still shy by nature but I have come a long way…and I am definitely no snob…
The Key to a Great Pasta Carbonara
…well, maybe in one part of my life I do sometimes stick my nose up in the air. When it comes to pasta carbonara, I am quite picky. I am a stickler for its traditional preparation of using no cream. Pasta carbonara is a humble dish. If you love it as much as I do, you are familiar with its simple ingredients: eggs, guanciale, Pecorino cheese and ground pepper. I continue to have trouble finding guanciale so I usually use deli bacon (not heavily smoked) or pancetta on occasion. Pecorino-Romano is the preferred cheese in Rome where this dish originated, but Parmigiano-Reggiano is also widely used. Honestly, I don’t use Pecorino too much as it is a bit too salty for me. As for the eggs, the number of eggs used varies from recipe to recipe. Do you use only egg yolks or the whites too? There may be minor variations in proportion for these aformentioned ingredients but cream should never be part of the equation. Just my (not so humble) opinion. I have nothing against creamy pasta dishes–love them–just not in my carbonara, please.
Here is the way I have learned to prepare mine over the years. It took a bit of trial and error to not end up with scrambled eggs when “cooking” the sauce but I finally got it right. I hope you like it.
Pasta alla Carbonara
* serves 2 (easily doubles for 4)
- 1/2 pound spaghetti
- 4 ounces bacon, pancetta or guanciale (cut up)
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for topping (or Pecorino Romano if you have it)
- 2 whole eggs
- 1 egg yolk (Add one more egg yolk for more richness)
- Lots of freshly ground black pepper
- salt, to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish (not traditional)
- Reserved pasta water, optional
- Bring a pot of water to a boil but don’t start cooking your pasta until you have prepped the “sauce”. It is important that the pasta be freshly drained from the pot when you use it. It is this heat that will cook the eggs for the sauce.
- To prepare the sauce: In a bowl large enough to accommodate the pasta, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, cheese and several turns of ground pepper from a peppermill. Set aside.
- When you are ready to fry the bacon, you can also start boiling the pasta. Cook the bacon in a pan until crisp. Take the pan off the heat and leave the bacon to cool slightly with its rendered fat for 3-4 minutes (about the same time it will take for the pasta to finish cooking).
- When the pasta is ready, drain it lightly so that you have just a bit of pasta water still dripping from the colander (don’t rinse!) and immediately add to the egg/cheese/pepper mixture. Add the bacon and drippings (if you have too much rendered fat, leave some out) and toss quickly to incorporate the sauce into the pasta. If the timing is right, you shouldn’t have any scrambled egg bits but it’s okay if you do. It will be better next time. :)Taste for seasonings. You shouldn’t need salt at this point but add if you wish. I always add more pepper to mine. Serve immediately.