Carbonara is widely known as a simple recipe, but for the longest time it seemed a bit mysterious to me. I'd watch a friend mix a few ingredients together, in what seemed destined to become some sort of spaghetti omelet, only to be presented with a beautiful - and delicious - meal. Then one day I came across David Leite's recipe. It seemed simple enough. Well, it seemed short enough that it'd be simple. So I tried it.
And, well, it wasn't bad, but came out a bit clumpy and dry. So I tried again. And again. And read some very helpful comments on Leite's article. And found some variations of the recipe. And experimented a bit. So now I'm finally happy with my Carbonara, and hopefully you'll find it as easy and rewarding as I do! :)
I used to make it with bacon, which is ok but sort of overwhelms all other flavours in the dish. I've recently purchased some excellent pancetta and let me tell you, Carbonara just isn't the same without it. Actually, apparently Carbonara is supposed to be made with guanciale, but I haven't managed to lay my hands on some yet (But I will. I will). So use pancetta if you can, but don't let that stop you otherwise. Bacon is fine. Or try both and let me know if you can tell the difference. And do drop a line if you use guanciale!
Another small but significant detail: I've found many recipes that use only Pecorino cheese. However, David Leite uses a 3-to-1 mix of Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Parmesan) and Pecorino. I usually cook Carbonara with Parmesan (it's more easily available around here), but the Parmesan/Pecorino mix is indeed more flavourful. However, I think using only Pecorino would, again, come out too strong and break the balance.
So let's get to it. The quantities are good for 3 people (or two, with repeats; at least that's how it goes around here). It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, but allow a bit more on your first try.
- 1 large pot for cooking the spaghetti
- 1 large skillet or frying pan for the pancetta - and afterwards for mixing in the sauce and the spaghetti, so make sure it's big enough! Use a regular pan with the widest possible bottom, if you don't have a large skillet.
- 1 mixing bowl
- 1 measuring jar or similar container, good for at least 2 cups of water. One with a handle would be nice, so you can just dip it into the cooking pot
- 1 sharp knife
- 1 pair of tongs
- A little olive oil, just enough for a few splashes on the skillet. I usually don't bother with extra-virgin, as it has a lower smoke point than standard olive oil.
- 200g of pancetta
- 3L of water
- 250g of spaghetti (or, if you're feeling hungry, perhaps a bit more, say 2/3 of a 500g package)
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- 2 large eggs, plus two egg yolks
- 1/4 cup of Pecorino cheese and 1/4 cup of Parmesan, grated and mixed together
- Black pepper, to be ground on the spot
Fill the cooking pot with water and put it to boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt (at any point).
In the meantime, slice the pancetta in cubes. I like them larger, about 1.5 or 2cm on each side, but you can make them smaller if you like. I sometimes cut some of the fat out, but never all of it, since it helps grease the pan (and tastes damn good). Sprinkle a bit of olive oil of the frying pan, heat it on medium high and sautée the pancetta until it's crisp and the clinging fat is golden brown. Take it off the heat and set the pancetta aside, but don't wash that frying pan yet!
On a mixing bowl, thoroughly mix two whole eggs, plus two egg yolks. Most recipes call for three eggs plus one yolk, but I found that the higher yolk-to-white ratio helps prevent clumping. Whisk in the 1/2 cup of grated cheese. Add the reserved pancetta as well, and mix everything together.
Back to the pot. Once the water is boiling, add the spaghetti and gently stir it to prevent sticking. After a few minutes (but before it's done), pick up 1/2 cup of the cooking water and slowly integrate it with the egg mix. This will also help prevent clumping, especially if your eggs had been kept in the fridge.
When the spaghetti is al dente, reserve an additional 1 and 1/2 cup of the cooking water, and drain the pasta. Put the frying pan on low heat and immediately add the spaghetti to it. Fold it once or twice to coat it with the oil that remained from frying the pancetta, and add the egg mix.
Now, here comes the crucial part. You want the egg mix to thicken into a creamy sauce, coating the spaghetti. Keep folding the spaghetti and gently stirring the sauce so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the frying pan. If necessary, add some of the reserved cooking water. I usually end up adding about 1/2 cup (in addition to the 1/2 cup I had already whisked into the egg mix). Take that opportunity to grind some black pepper onto the spaghetti and mix it in.
Once you've reached the desired consistency, that's it! Take it off the heat and serve immediately. If you're serving on individual plates, grate some cheese (perhaps some of the Pecorino/Parmesan mix) and grind some more black pepper on the pasta. If you're serving on a bowl, leave the grated cheese and pepper grinder on the table for your guests. And make sure they use them!
Finally, although pasta is usually associated with wine, I find that Spaghetti alla Carbonara goes great with beer, especially with lighter ales.