Pasta alla Carbonara is a perennial favourite no matter what country you come from. These days, it’s old news that cream is strictly forbidden when making an authentic Carbonara but it’s not just this that makes Mamma’s version so much better than anything you’ll find at most Italian restaurants. We all know there’s Carbonara and then there’s a proper Roman Carbonara. Go find some guanciale!
2 egg yolks
Approx 77g guanciale (equivalent to one of those little packets if you are buying chopped guanciale or pancetta)
Spaghetti (see Measuring the Spaghetti note below)
1/4 C (approx 1 ladleful) of hot water taken from the pasta towards the end of cooking
First, turn a pan onto low heat and add the chopped guanciale. You don’t need to add any oil to here because there is so much fat in the guanciale that the fat will render out quickly to cook the meat. Even if you are using pancetta, you should be able to melt enough fat out of the meat to need no oil (although for a non-fattier pancetta, it’s advisable to get the pan started with a small amount of oil.)
You can’t hurry this process, and it will take about 10 minutes to render all the fat out. You are looking for a dark pink colour. If the guanciale shows any sign of darkening further or you start to smell burning, take it off the heat immediately. The end result will be deliciously crisp (but not burnt) pieces of meat and a decent amount of fat in the pan. Time this process so the cooking is complete at the same as the pasta, or with just enough time to keep it warm without unintentionally over cooking the guanciale.
After you’ve got the guanciale started, bring a large pot of water to the boil for the spaghetti. Liberally salt the water, then tip the pasta in. Spaghetti normally takes about 9 minutes to cook. You want the pasta to have a bit of bite rather than being mushy. And for best results, turn the oven onto to very low heat to gently warm your serving bowl in the oven. This way the pasta stays at optimal temperature once it is cooked – you are going to rely on the hot pasta to thicken the eggs and create the sauce.
Next, make the ‘cream’. Here you have two options. Heating eggs in a bowl over water is more involved than the more familiar route of not completing this step, but will give an excellent result.
A) Bring another pot of water to the boil (see Making the Cream in the notes below).
B) If you are not intending to heat the eggs over simmering water, there is no need for Step A.
Regardless of your choice above, in a bowl large enough to fit over the pot without falling in, using a fork, whisk together the egg yolks, grated pecorino and grated parmesan cheese and cracked black pepper. Carbonara is a dish that benefits from more black pepper than you would normally use.
When the meat and the pasta has about 2 minutes of cooking time remaining, take a spoon and pour some hot water from the pasta into the bowl of mixed eggs, cheese and pepper to make the sauce. I always start by pouring a small amount of water in first rather than pouring all in at once, avoiding the dreaded scrambled egg effect. Just like making custard, this risk can be averted by adding a small amount of hot liquid to start, which raises the temperature of the mixture, then you can follow with the rest of the pasta water (approx 1/4 cup required in total).
[Only if following step A: Continually stir this mixture over the pot of water and stir until it thickens (see note on ‘making the cream‘ below). Take it off the heat once you have achieved the desired consistency. Not thick like mayonnaise – more airy like the eggwhite mixture you get on top of a cocktail.]
Now you are almost complete. This is the time to pour the mixture over the pasta and create the Carbonara sauce. The trick is to do this without scrambling the eggs, but if you follow the steps below this will work just fine. I do this by draining the pasta into a colander (or more likely, lifting it out of the pot using tongs) and pouring the pasta into the large bowl. Next tip the guanciale and fat over the top. Now you need to create the sauce using the eggs. If you have heated the eggs over the warm water as per step A, this step is mostly completed but if you are using the eggs from raw, you are relying on the heat of the pasta to ‘cook’ the eggs and thicken the sauce.
Working quickly (I have my tongs in one hand, bowl in the other) pour some the mixture over the pasta and stir around to get the sauce started, then pour the rest until the eggs and cheese mixture has coated every strand, the guanciale is evenly distributed and the sauce has achieved a creamy consistency. Hopefully you see a smooth, velvety sauce but even if there are a few scrambled egg bits, not to worry, it will still taste delicious. Using your tongs, lift portions of the mixture onto two plates.
Finish with a sprinkle of good salt, and perhaps a further grating of cheese if you wish.
In Rome, Carbonara is made using guanciale, a cured meat that is difficult to come by unless you have access to a really good Italian deli. It’s made from the pig’s cheek, making it very high in fat content. In absence of guanciale, use pancetta. Never bacon – too often it’s full of water rather than pure fatty goodness. And here we want the fat because this provides an important flavour element in the finished dish.
Measuring the Spaghetti
The amount of pasta you use is entirely a matter of personal preference in my opinion, but for this recipe you need enough pasta in order to set 2 eggs into a sauce. I measure pasta using a technique I read in an (surprisingly) informative cookbook by The Real Housewives of New Jersey’s, Teresa Giudice, which I discovered on a free Kindle download. Teresa pulls the spaghetti out of the packet, joins her thumb and forefinger together to make a circle and reduces or enlarges the hole depending on how many people she is cooking for. Comparing the size of the hole to a coin (this being the Real Housewives), you then determine how much will pasta fit into the hole, and this how much you use. From memory, her coins were slightly more generous than mine per serving, but for two people I suggest using enough spaghetti to fit a circle the size of about a two pound coin (two dollar, two euro wherever you come from, they are more or less the same size). When I am cooking for just me, I will make a hole that fits a 20p coin which is sensible portion size for one person.
Making the ‘cream’
The essential creamy element is a result of mixing egg yolks, a big spoon of pasta water and an emulsion of half pecorino, half parmesan. And before you ask, Mamma uses both cheeses so this is how we do it. To make it perfect, use a zabaione style which means to thicken the mixture over a pan of boiling water – as you would when melting chocolate or making bernaise sauce. But in reality, this is time consuming and it’s perfectly fine to just stir the mixture in at the end.
No garlic, no oil
The flavour comes from sheer skill, fat and pepper. No garlic! Seriously!
Variations on a classic
I have been known to mix this up by taking a couple of good sausages out of their skins, then crumbling and frying the meat in the same style that you would the guanciale. Once the fat has rendered and the sausage meat has almost finishing browning, I crush a small clove of garlic in so it gently cooks in the fat. Here is it important not overcook the garlic. The objective is to add no colour to the garlic, just cook it through until you get that delicious smell wafting through the kitchen, meaning it has permeated the fat and meat enough to add a subtle flavour to the finished pasta. I then cook the rest of the recipe as per the instructions above. May I add that the Sausage Carbonara version is tried and tested for soaking up a hangover. It can be whipped up in no time as long as you have a couple of sausages on hand for immediate relief without leaving the house.
Given the lack of meat and pig fat, this is a loosely related cousin of a proper Carbonara, but the combination works surprisingly well. The Carbonara element is delivered through the same method of egg and cheese stirred in at the end, and again it is the perfect way to add creaminess to the dish without using actual cream. Chop the courgettes into fat matchsticks, gently heat some olive oil and lightly brown one lightly-smashed clove of garlic in a pan then add the courgettes to the oil. After about ten minutes over low-medium heat, they start to release water and will wilt down without colouring. Once this has happened, you can follow the steps to make the carbonara sauce in the recipe above, then pour it over the spaghetti and courgettes and sprinkle with chopped parsley to finish. Don’t forget to take out the garlic clove or it will be a bit of a mouthful for someone.