Spaghetti carbonara is really a bitch. Not only do many places (in the US) completely reinterpret the dish to serve whatever ends they deem important, but when you try to make it at home, it can be elusive at best (read: a big, sticky mess). When I lived in Florence some years back, a good friend and very accomplished cook attempted to show me how to make it. I drank too much wine during the demonstration/lesson and as a result the notes that I took looked as if they’d been scrawled by some alien with only a basic understanding of food in general and who favored an incoherent mix of Italian and English. Anyway! What is someone who is craving eggs, guanciale (or bacon…that is ok too, I guess), and spaghetti to do? Well, that person should buck up and make carbonara and do it well. Here’s how and a bit of (perhaps unnecessary) history of the dish to boot.
No one can come to any good consensus over the dish’s origins. I’ve heard it said that it originated in Umbria and was then co-opted by the Romans sometime in the nineteenth century. Another version has it that it is actually Neapolitan and invented by Ippolito Cavalcanti. And yet another story says that it was actually the Americans who inspired this dish when they arrived during World War II, bringing with them enormous quantities of powdered eggs and bacon in their rations. Roman cooks improved on the American combination and the dish we know today was born. You choose the version you want to believe in!
I think that it goes without saying that getting the best ingredients possible is really f-ing important (try to forget about the powdered American eggs and channel a Roman’s disgust and subsequent innovations). A dish this simple really requires more skill in marketing than it does over the actual stove. This can be tricky in the United States, but I like to think of it as an added challenge. Beppe Severgnini, the prolific Italian author and columnist (who has been translated into English…so read him!), once said that shopping in Italy, due to the irregular hours of the stores–which depend on the town, the day, and the whims of the owner–is truly an art. I try to keep this in mind when I’m shopping for ingredients to make an Italian dish in the United States. It is an art to be able to source the right things depending on where you live. Those who are fortunate enough to find themselves in a city center are just lucky and more well-equipped, but everyone else has gotta work for it. (Yes, I usually live in cities in the US, but when I visit my parents in Michigan it is always a challenge!)
The ingredients that make carbonara special and worth eating are eggs, guanciale, and cheese. Let’s start with the eggs. In colloquial Italian the yolk is called il rosso, “the red.” This should tell you that the yellow-ish yolks you find in the supermarkets in America are NOT what you’re looking for. Even the good supermarkets (think Whole Foods) cannot provide consistently fresh eggs that can be the centerpiece of any dish. And that’s what this dish does: it puts a big spotlight on the quality of the eggs you use. What should you do? Find a farmer who is raising chickens to lay eggs that have yolks the color of autumn leaves: super duper orange. Or raise chickens yourself (heh…yeah, right). That works, too. The yolks you want should also have some integrity to them–they need to stand up a bit when you crack them. If you can’t find eggs like this, or don’t have the time or inclination, maybe you should make something else. Just sayin’. (Yes, it can be hard. But that’s the point!)
Now, for the guanciale. This is actually the cheek (guancia) of the pig. It is part muscle and part very delicate fat and it is not normally smoked. It is aged for a number of weeks, depending on the recipe and region, until it is quite well cured, but not aggressively so. Compared to pancetta, guanciale is slightly tougher and it has a very different, more subtle flavor. I would like to hope you can find it. I know that this is not often the case (maybe online?). What to do? Pancetta is just fine when in the US, I say. Though, I really, really do not like La Quercia’s pancetta (or products in general), which are out of Iowa and sustainably produced. This is stuff for another post, but suffice it to say their pigs are eating something that is NOT curing well in the meat. And what if you cannot find pancetta? Wow. I’m sorry. Can you find prosciutto? (Italians are rolling their eyes and getting all kinds of pissy right now) No prosciutto? Well, YES you CAN use bacon (please, for the love of all that is holy, make it local, sustainable, and LIGHTLY smoked), but it isn’t ideal. That said, if you have to give on the eggs OR the bacon, do not give on the eggs. Go light on the bacon if need be, but make sure your eggs are pristine. Please.
That leaves us with one more haunting ingredient: cheese. This is a Roman dish (adopted, perhaps) and its true version calls for pecorino romano* (known as “romano” in the US; Whole Foods’ product is decent), but some versions will allow a bit of parmesan added in (it seems the consensus is with Grano Padano and NOT Parmigiano Reggiano). If you go this route, do not exceed one third of total cheese as parmesan. I mean, you can…but it isn’t carbonara…sooooo…
Once you’ve got all of your ingredients collected, including good olive oil, fresh cracked black pepper, and spaghetti, you’re good to go. The following recipe is for two, but it can be increased or decreased accordingly (a word, though: I eat a lot. Really. But this dish defeats me; it is just very filling). The general rule on the eggs is one yolk per person, plus one whole egg regardless. So if you’re making it for one: one yolk, one egg. Two: two yolks, one egg. Got it? Also you’ll notice that there is no garlic or onion in this recipe. That is the traditional way and I find they can make a dish that is already a bit heavy far too rich. The one thing you can do is deglaze the pan you saute the guanciale in with about a quarter cup of dry white wine (note: only cook with wine you would actually drink).
–1/3 cup guanciale cut into small cubes
–1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
–Two egg yolks, plus one whole egg
–1/2 cup finely grated pecorino romano, plus some for sprinkling atop at serving
–Fresh cracked black pepper to taste (I use at least 1/2 tsp)
–1/2 lb spaghetti
In a large pot, bring abundant water to boil (salt it only after it has begun to boil). In the meantime, in a small skillet, heat the olive oil until almost smoking and add the guanciale.
Oh hiiii, guanciale. Ignore the germ-ridden cutting board and less than desirable knife: this apartment, it is furnished and that is all that matters.
Brown the guanciale on all sides until quite crispy (deglaze pan, if desired). Mix eggs, cheese, and pepper in a separate bowl.
Aw, would you look at those beauties? The old man who sold them to me said that his wife was a hen. I still don't know what to do with that info.
When water boils add salt and cook spaghetti (I will often use the box instructions and then subtract 45 seconds or so…but I like it really to the teeth!). Drain pasta and reserve three tablespoons of pasta water. Return the spaghetti to the same pot you boiled it in, add the guanciale, and continuously stirring, add the egg/cheese mixture and the pasta water. The stirring is important, as you want the mixture to coat each strand lightly and not to clump up. The reserved pasta water will help you with this. Serve immediately, with a light sprinkling of cheese.
While I love this dish, no one is denying the fact that it is pretty darn heavy. I think of it as a treat. That said, I love eggs in pasta. I eat meat, obviously, but I often take long breaks from it. I really, really like eggs though, and they are an easy way to enhance your pasta. Following is a recipe for what I think of as a “friend” of carbonara (or a friend of spaghetti aglio e olio). A delicious friend without a hot meat injection. Let’s call it: “Pasta alla I’m too lazy to find guanciale, I’ve got eggs, and I want pasta so I’m making this and it’s good.”
Recipe (serves two again, but can be cut down to serve one, or increased for more. Rule: one egg/person):
3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes or peperoncino (or more, if you wanna DO IT RIGHT)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed a bit, but not chopped or minced
1/2 to 3/4 lb of spaghetti
Optional: fresh tomatoes if they’re in season
Heat up that water! Don’t salt it. In a medium saucepan heat olive oil, garlic cloves, and red pepper until the garlic is slightly browned (don’t over do it!). If using tomatoes, chop them and put them in at the beginning of this process, with a pinch of salt. Once garlic is a bit toasted, remove cloves and turn off the heat. Let the oil cool down for a few minutes and then crack the eggs in it, side by side, and let them sit until you’re ready. They will cook a bit at the bottom, but stay mostly raw. They are marrying with the flavor of your yummy, garlicy, spicy oil. Dump the spaghetti in the now boiling water and cook it. Drain, reserving one or two tablespoons of water. Return whole deal to the boiling water pot and stirring constantly with a fork, dump your eggs and oil in. Add reserved pasta water too. Serve immediately with parmigiano reggiano atop. YUM.
So, there you have it: tradition and my interpretation for a meatless version. Cooking is so sensitive in Italy. On recipe sites that feature carbonara the comments sections can be vicious with competing opinions for preparations (the use of cooking cream–panna–is a hot topic; I don’t think the dish needs it at all). I like tradition, and I certainly respect it, but sometimes you gotta take it where you want it to go. That is basically to say: Please mess with these recipes and make them to your liking, but try it out once the “right” way!
A wine suggestion? Yeah, I drink red when it's cold and white when it isn't. You should drink wine that doesn't make you feel like an angry beast the next morning. FACT.
* I was teaching Intermediate Italian II last year and there was a unit on Sardegna, the island off Italy’s west coast. Pecorino sardo is a famous sheep’s milk cheese from the island, just like pecorino romano is a famous sheep’s milk cheese from Rome. A student, of Italian origin, asked me what “pecorino” meant and I told her that it meant “sheep.” She gasps and says, “You mean the cheese I eat with my parents at home is from a SHEEP?” Um, yes? I was so taken aback by her disgust at something that is so normal (and delicious) and that she’d been eating for a long time, that I brought in a sampling of sheep’s milk cheeses at the end of the semester for the students to taste. You know what? I didn’t have to bring any cheese home! They ate it all! Viva la pecora!