Carbonara is undoubtedly one of the greatest pasta dishes of all time. That silky combination of just set eggs, hard, salty cheese and crispy pork has been a long-time favourite of comfort-food-loving families, the local Italian restaurant and that ‘little place we found in a tiny Italian village this summer run by a mother and father with their son in the kitchen…’ The possible origins of this dish are wonderful; some say that American GI’s in Italy after World War 2 gave the Italian chefs their rations of bacon and eggs, and obligingly they made this dish with pasta. Others say that the dish originates from the ‘carbonaro’, an Italian charcoal burner, which the workers used to cook their lunch. Whatever the origin, it doesn’t really matter when you sit down to a bowl of this unctuous combination of ingredients!
Lets set a few principles straight before we start cooking. (To be authentic, you know…)
Meat: Traditionally, the Italians use ‘guanciale’ (cured pork cheek). It’s delicious, but very difficult to find here, so let’s use pancetta, if possible. Effectively, the difference between pancetta and bacon is that pancetta is ‘dry-cured’, whilst bacon is usually ‘wet-cured’ (brined), so pancetta is sweeter and drier.
Cream? An Italian chef would be well in his rights to shudder at the thought of cream in a Carbonara. And it’s true that if you do it right there is no need for cream. However, we’re not perfect and we may not have the time or energy to care. So, go on, add a bit of cream if you want. You deserve it. You rebel.
Pasta: Spaghetti. Come on, none of this progressive talk of linguine or penne. Let’s keep politics progressive, not pasta.
Cheese: This is an interesting point. Traditionally pecorino would be considered the better choice. It’s a sheep’s milk cheese, which has a great chalkiness to it. You often find it served with a pot of honey in Italy to compliment the saltiness. Parmesan is absolutely fine, but it needs to be freshly grated.
Black Pepper: the final cog in the machine, the last guy-rope in the tent, the end of the credits… Black pepper makes a Carbonara as it provides a fiery burst of flavour to stand up to the saltiness and richness.
Anything else? Onion, garlic, parsley, basil, peas, broccoli, mushrooms… the list goes on for things you could add to a Carbonara. All are delicious, however, the more elements you add to an inherently simple dish, the more you take away from it. So we’ll keep this Carbonara very simple.
In honour of the legend of the American GI’s we’ll make this a military operation, and notate it accordingly.
-15mins: One huge pan of water on the boil. The Italians say that you should have, for every 100grams of pasta, 1 litre of water and 10grams of salt.
-14mins: In a large frying pan, fry cubes of pancetta in a glug of olive oil. Don’t fry them quickly; medium heat is perfect.
-12mins: Put the pasta in. 100grams per person, at least.
-11mins: Crack 1.5 eggs per person into a bowl. If you’re left with half an egg, round it up. Add half a handful of grated pecorino/parmesan per person and lightly whisk. Add a good crack of black pepper, and a small glug of cream (if you’re using it).
-9mins: Check on pancetta. We’re looking for ultimate crispiness without losing some of its moisture inside. If it’s there already, turn off the heat.
-3mins: The pasta should be cooked al dente by now. Remember it will continue to cook, so drain it with a mug under the colander to collect some pasta water for the sauce.
-2mins: Add the pasta to the pancetta pan and coat the pasta in all the wonderful oil.
-1.5mins: Add the egg mixture and turn off the heat. Stir in a splash of the pasta water and mix well, just until the eggs start to set.
-30seconds: Place into big bowls, scatter with some more cheese, black pepper and bit of olive oil. Serve immediately.
Image: Flickr: <Stu Spivack>