I think I’m obsessed with carbonara. It’s not hard to see why; pasta plus all the things that make breakfast wonderful? A creamy, hearty sauce without having to deal with the temperaments of cream? How could I resist?
The problem was that I’d never actually had an authentic carbonara before, so how the hell am I supposed to know how to actually make it? Read all about it, I suppose. Carbonara is supposed to be a fairly simple, rustic dish, eaten by Italian coalminers. A few incarnations I had in Italian restaurants here were totally Americanized–too creamy, too cheesy, too salty. I think the very first time I’d ever had it was at a French-style restaurant on California Ave. in Palo Alto called Nora’s (not sure if it’s there anymore). Since then, “carbonara” was pretty synonymous with “creamy bacon sauce” (re: Quizno’s, any rendition of carbonara pizza–which actually freaks me out a bit).
My foundational carbonara recipe comes out of a Williams-Sonoma cookbook on pasta, my publisher of choice because they provide fun food porn pictures with every recipe. It’s pretty standard as far as carbonara recipes go and doesn’t include cream, which is a plus. My first carbonara, sort of a poor college student’s meal when I was living in Washington, DC, was pretty bland; I have a habit of underseasoning because I’m afraid to be liberal with the salt. My habits have evolved and I’ve acquired some good Morton’s kosher salt and flaky sea salt from Trader Joe’s.
A lot of the carbonaras I’ve made from then until now have been okay, varying widely in taste and looks. I think I’ve uncovered some key points that solve a lot of the uncertainty of outcome:
– Let the ingredients get to room temperature before cooking. This is especially important with the eggs and possibly the meat.
– Pick higher quality bacon/pork than the generic-brand stuff. I used to use thick-sliced whatever I could find, the thin stuff sucks, cooks too fast and becomes dry and brittle.. If you can find it, pancetta works best… I find it has a slightly different flavor and its boxy shape works better in the pasta. I’ve had a lot of problems with the bacon just sinking to the bottom of the dish, although it’s kind of like a treasure hunt when you find it.
– Salting the pasta water liberally will save the salt you’ll have to put on the dish later.
– Use good cheese, too. Never pre-shredded stuff. Best is parmesan or pecorino, although I’ve noticed the pecorino has more of a “sour” flavor that I prefer because it’s a little more complex.
– I don’t know if this is traditional, but the Williams-Sonoma recipe deglazes the pork with some dry white wine. I’ve been using sherry. It adds a nice extra flavor; don’t add too much, just enough to reduce to a liquidy syrup.
– I cheap out on the pasta (the cheapest noodles I can find! Spaghetti is standard, linguine is my favorite), sherry (I think the bottle was about $4 at Safeway and it’s lasted me through a lot of good dishes), eggs (maybe it would taste better with organic, but the regular one seem to work just fine), garlic, and parsley.
– I like to brown the pork; I think it gives more flavor and texture. I’d rather overcook the pork than have it be chewy and boring.
– Sometimes I add red pepper flakes to the eggs. I use whisk to mix the egg to aerate and incorporate all the ingredients of the “sauce” (eggs, cheese, pepper, parsley).
– 1 lb. dry pasta = 3 large eggs, possibly 2 jumbo eggs. If it’s a little dry, you can add a touch of cream or starchy pasta water. But really, 3 eggs should do it. Crazy-ass Giada uses 8 egg yolks in this recipe; I’ve been finding some of her recipes a bit questionable (lemon in alfredo sauce?).
– I toss the cooked pasta with the oily, winey, pork mixture before adding to the eggs so it can absorb the juices and stay hot.
– It takes me a while to dice the pork and garlic, so I do that before starting the pasta; I’d rather have the meat mixture sitting than have the pasta overcook and be mushy.
That being said, here’s my recipe: (I don’t have exact measurements for some things because I just throw them in there, but I’ll give the Williams-Sonoma ones.)
1 lb. dry spaghetti or linguine
1 Tb. olive oil
1/2 lb. or 6-8 oz. pancetta, diced (my pieces were sort of large, like lardons)
3-4 garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped (I find smashing = more flavor)
1/3 cup dry white wine or sherry
3 eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese (I use a handful in the sauce, an extra to sprinkle on top)
1/4 flat-leaf parsley
Kosher or sea salt, fresh pepper
red pepper flakes (optional)
Cook pasta in salted water. Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat, add pancetta and fry until browned (could add at medium-high to sear, then reduce temp). Add garlic and let it chill. In a large serving bowl, break eggs, add handful of cheese and season with some parsley, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Whisk together. Before the garlic turns brown, just when it’s fragrant, add wine/sherry and let alcohol burn off, maybe 3-5 minutes on medium or medium-high. Drain pasta and mix into pork until well coated in oils. Add to egg mixture and quickly (I use two wooden spoons) toss (a matter of judgment: the pasta can’t be too hot, otherwise it’ll cook the eggs too much and you’ll have weird half-scrambled eggs). Serve topped with parsley and cheese, season to taste (I like lots of pepper).