This is just one of those recipes that I can get very passionate about. Even though I had never heard of it until I was about 15 years old, living in southern Ontario, in a town that is predominantly Italian. It would only be a matter of time before one of the many Italian moms of all of my various friends made this for dinner. Which of course we ate in the basement kitchen (all my fellow Italian readers will understand this!!) I thought it was brilliant: bacon and eggs in pasta. Breakfast for dinner. Win win.
Flash forward a few years to when I was around 24 years old. I was visiting a girlfriend, enjoying a great chat over espresso and pizelles. Then she suddenly realized it was getting close to dinner time and her daughter would be home soon. “Wanna stay for dinner?” “Sure.” “Good, I’m just making carbonara though.” Here was my chance to watch it being made by someone in the know. She pulled out the pasta, a hunk of parmesan, pepper, garlic, pancetta and a couple of eggs. It all came together so seamlessly. My head almost exploded when I saw her crack the eggs, separate them, and add only the yolks, after she had already removed the finished pasta from the heat. She added them and stirred, and it all came together into a creamy success. My world was just a little richer that evening.
The name can be interpreted in a few different ways. Carbonara can refer to the romantic notion that it is in “the coal worker’s style, that the dish was a dish eaten by coal workers or that the abundant use of coarsely ground black pepper resembles coal flakes.” (According to CliffordAWhite.com) It can also refer to the charcoal smoke cured pork that was used originally in the dish. Either way, or any other way, it is a yummy way to bring simple ingredients together.
There seem to be so many ideas of what the ingredients should be. Cream, no cream. Egg whites, no egg whites. Parsley, no parsley. I had never seen it made with cream, so it frustrates me when I read it in the menu description in restaurants. And if it is isn’t clear on the menu, I can’t tell you how many strange looks I receive when I ask if the dish has cream in it. Some seem to think its just a version of an alfredo sauce. It’s NOT! So if the server says “Why yes” 🙂 I have to respectfully decline.
The brilliant creaminess happens when some of the cooked pasta water combines with the pancetta fat and finely freshly shredded parmesan cheese. And when you add the egg yolks at the very end, it becomes even that touch more silky and rich. No cream needed.
This is truly a case where the final dish is a reflection of the ingredients used. Use the absolute best quality you can find. This is not the time for pre-shredded parmesan cheese. Use the best pancetta or guanciole you can get your hands on. Freshly chopped parsley (I like it at the very end), amazing peppercorns, and even some exotic duck or quail eggs if you can get a hold of them, and you are set. I’m not going to say you have to make homemade fresh tagliatelle or spaghetti, but at least get some really good semolina pasta for the most amazing tooth, from your favourite pasta purveyor.
In the time it takes the pasta to cook you will have the pancetta cooked off in a sauté pan. The hard work is draining the pasta! Some pasta water us added to the sauteed pancetta, and then the drained pasta goes into the pan for a quick stir on the heat. Adding freshly cracked pepper and fluffy freshly grated parmesan for a quick stir off the heat, and then finally the egg yolks, and that’s it. Really. This is the time to have everything ready to go. Mis en place is the rule here. You have no time to suddenly realize that the eggs need separating. You want to add them while there is just enough residual heat to warm them through (but not cook them).
This is a simple dish. And it is not. But it is an easy one to get out onto the table. when you do it right, it is totally company worthy. Serve a simple green salad and fresh crusty calabrese bread, and your guests will thank you. Profusely. Especially if there is grappa for dessert.
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces pancetta, guanciale, or really good bacon, chopped into bite sized pieces (but not too small)
- 1 pound pasta: spaghetti or tagliatelle (or fettucini or linquini, you get it...)
- 1 1/4 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (please don't buy the pre-grated this time around!)
- 4 large egg yolks (or count on 3 quail egg yolks per person)
- freshly ground Black Pepper
- 1-2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- Bring a large pot of water to boil, and add 2 tablespoons salt.
- Meanwhile, combine the olive oil and pancetta in a med-large (at least 12 inch) saute pan set over medium heat.
- Cook until the pancetta is crispy and golden and has rendered the fat into the olive oil. Remove from the heat and set aside (do not drain the fat).
- Cook the spaghetti once the water is at a boil, until just al dente.
- Remove 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta.
- Add the reserved pasta water to the pan with the pancetta, stir, and then toss in the pasta and return to the heat, stirring, for 1 minute.
- Remove from the heat, add 1 cup of the Parmigiano and pepper to taste, and toss until thoroughly mixed.
- Divide the pasta among four warmed serving bowls. Make a nest in the center of each one, and gently drop an egg yolk into each nest. Season the egg yolks with more pepper and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano over the top.
- Garnish with a sprinkling of parsley.
- Serve immediately.
- The method comes from Mario Batali. He outlines it so well, I couldn't improve on the description!
- If using quail eggs, count on 3 eggs per person. Be gentle with cracking the shells, to avoid piercing the yolks.