Pasta Carbonara

I think it’s pretty clear by now that I have a pretty significant sweet tooth. If I could eat cake and cookies, all day, for the rest of my life, without any ill effect I certainly would.  Sadly, I live in the real world. But we’re not talking about sweet things today, no… today, I am sharing with you my other - not so secret - obsession… Pasta.  That’s right, spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, fusilli, pappardelle, tagliatelle, farfalle… it doesn’t matter what the cut or shape is, just boil it, sauce it, put it on a plate, and I am there with a fork at the ready. If I knew it wouldn’t wreak havoc on my waistline, I would eat pasta for breakfast, lunch, and dinner… and still want more.  As I said… Sadly I live in the real world.  Pasta, for me, is truly the ultimate comfort food, surpassing standards like meatloaf and potatoes or even Sloppy Joes.   

I almost don’t even care what sauce is used… but notice I said almost.  

I am very partial to my grandmothers red sauce (especially if there are meatballs involved (and meatballs are always involved) and I have already posted a Bolognese recipe that I find fantastic. Other sauces I like? Well, a good vodka sauce on penne pasta will make me drool a little and a well-made Alfredo sauce on spinach linguini might just make me shed a happy tear or two. Besides those, a big bowl of rigatoni noodles with nothing more than butter and grated Parmesan cheese is so delicious I can’t even begin to tell you and I would eat the Naples classic: Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (which is simply spaghetti dressed with garlic and olive oil) until the cows come home. BTW, I don’t know how long it takes a cow to come home but I assume it’s a long time and I would have no problem with that. I draw the line at sauces with anchovies, like puttanesca, and sweet sauces, especially those with raisins (a Sicilian specialty) are also on my “to be avoided” list.  Of course there are also many pasta dishes I can’t get enough of that don’t have a “sauce”. Like mac and cheese, the many different types of pasta salads, or dishes like chili mac or any number of soups that feature some type of pasta such as minestrone, pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans), or even pasta e ceci (pasta and chickpeas). 

I think I developed this love of what is essentially just a mix of flour and eggs at a very young age. In our house my mother served spaghetti – quite often. Perhaps because it was cheap (and quick) but nevertheless at least once a week it graced the table. Another regular occurrence at dinner was ground beef in some sort of white gravy made from cream of mushroom soup, served over a big pile of egg noodles, but I won’t go into that here. I can remember that we also had those same wide egg noodles (sometimes cooked in chicken broth) as a side dish to whatever was being served for dinner. On Christmas, right next to the ham was a big pan of stuffed jumbo shells (quite possibly my absolute favorite thing about Christmas dinner) and on Thanksgiving and Easter (and a few other special occasions) there was usually a big bowl of the aforementioned butter and cheese rigatoni on the table.  Even when my grandmother made bracioli, it was served with spaghetti on the side.  Pasta was just a regular thing in our family. There was always a box of pasta or two in the cabinet and even today if you look inside my mother’s cabinets you’ll find several boxes of different pasta just waiting to be made. 

On the flip side, David “likes” pasta; He “likes” - when I make my grandmothers red sauce and he “likes” a good mac and cheese but when it comes right down to it, he just doesn’t see pasta in the same way as I do.  When we sit down to a pasta dinner David will have an appropriate portion and he might even go back for just the smallest amount more if he’s still a bit hungry while my plate will be piled high with way more than is necessary, topped with an over abundance of Parmesan cheese, and when I go back for seconds I’ll get nearly as much as my first helping. Then, as we are cleaning up, I’ll just keep eating any leftovers straight out of the pan. Even after it’s been put away in the refrigerator, I usually sneak back in and grab a forkful or two at some point. 

A while back I can remember going to an Italian restaurant with a group of friends and I ordered the “ravioli special” that sounded to good to pass up. When my dinner arrived there were six ravioli on the plate arranged in a nice neat circle, dressed with an artistic drizzle of sauce. I stared at that plate trying not to show any emotion on my face, but inside I was dying.  Six?…Six?... SIX ravioli??? Where are the other 24? And… how was I going to make a plate of six ravioli last more the 20 seconds?  Before dinner had even started I knew I was going to be so hungry afterwards. To this day I won’t order ravioli (no matter how good it sounds) at any restaurant unless it comes with a free twelve-ounce rib eye steak and unlimited salad bar… and a piece of cake or pie… and a drink. What can I say – when it comes to pasta I either get a copious amount or I want something else to ensure I don’t leave hungry. Though I have never tested this (I have a little restraint, mind you) I think I could eat a whole one-pound box of pasta (including garlic bread if there happens to be some) by myself, in one sitting. Would I feel good after doing so, probably not (surely not), but it’s the journey not the destination, am I right?    

Picking a recipe for this post was actually quite difficult for me.  There are so many great recipes I would like to share with you. David would tell you that I chose a different final recipe at least a dozen times. Ultimately I ended up with what might be both his and my favorite recipe (if you eliminate all the other potential favorites in the list).  Actually I think the real reason I ended up choosing this recipe is because one of the best things about food is… bacon. Carbonara is all about the bacon… and eggs… gee, it sounds almost like breakfast.  Pasta alla carbonara is one of those dishes that has many personalities.  In some places people have added cream to their sauce, sometimes there are peas or other vegetables added, the standard long noodles like spaghetti or linguini have been changed out to penne or even mostaccioli, and even the type of cheese changes from time to time.  Here, we are going back to the basics. Here, we will prepare pasta alla carbonara as it was in the old days, but that comes with a warning… and here it is: Carbonara is basically pasta coated with the fat rendered from a piece of fatty guanciale or pancetta (Italian bacon) and eggs mixed with pecorino Romano cheese.  That’s right, this is pasta coated in pork fat… and honestly, life is way too short to worry about my high cholesterol every day. Granted I understand some of you may not share my opinion, (especially if you’re vegetarian) but if you want to live on the wild side for just one meal - try this, then tomorrow you can eat oatmeal and tofu all day.  Another thing about carbonara is the way it’s cooked.  Yes, it can be a bit tricky to make. The temperature of the oil and pasta has to be just right before mixing in the eggs to prevent them from scrambling if it’s too hot, and if it’s too cold the eggs won’t cook and become creamy which is equally bad. Timing is the key to this dish.  Be sure you’re prepared and ready to go with everything before you start. The method I use here should give you perfect results every time but a little of your own intuition will be needed as well.  

The video attached here (not mine) is a good reference to watch, so you can see how it comes together and to give you an idea of what to expect.  It’s a good idea to read through the recipe (or watch that video) to understand the process before you begin. Also be sure that you have a frying pan big enough to not only cook the bacon but to be able to hold all of the pasta as well, as the final mixing takes place in that pan. As for ingredients use the best you can find.  We’re not going to be making fresh pasta here (you can if you wish and you have the expertise for that) dry pasta will be fine, just get a good brand and stick to spaghetti, that’s the best noodle. I use pancetta in my carbonara, because guanciale is hard to find in my area and yes, I understand that it is a bit expensive (a good pecorino-Romano cheese will be a bit pricy per pound as well) but really, there are only 4 main ingredients in this dish so they should be the best you can get.  

Here’s how I make it:

Ingredients:

  • 6 ounces pancetta or guanciale, in slices at least ¼-inch thick 

                thick-cut bacon can be substituted if absolutely necessary

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

  • 4 quarts water

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 pound spaghetti

  • 3 large eggs, room temperature

  • 1 large egg yolk, room temperature

  • ½ cup grated pecorino romano cheese

  • Freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Cut the pancetta (or guanciale) into pieces that are about ¾-inch long by ¼-inch thick.  Basically you want a ¼-inch cube of bacon that is about ¾-inch long. If you are using thick cut bacon however, cut that into 1-inch pieces. 

Put the 4 quarts of water in a large pot and set over high heat, to bring it to a boil.

While the water heats up:

Put the olive oil and the pancetta (or other meat) in a large frying pan then set it over a medium-low heat cooking slowly until the fat has rendered out and the meat has browned a little. This can take about 15 minutes.  You don’t want the meat to be too crispy so turn off the heat just as soon as it gets a little brown.

Leave the meat and the fat in the pan, with the heat turned off, but cover it with a lid to keep it warm. You should have about 2 or 3 tablespoons of fat in the pan, if there is more than that, you can remove some to get the right amount.  

By the time the bacon is just about finished the water should be boiling

To the water add the tablespoon of salt and the pasta.

Stir the pasta for just a minute or so to make sure it isn’t sticking together.  Don’t add oil to the pot, just stir it every now and then and it will be fine.

Allow the pasta to cook until al dente, which is about 10-12 minutes.  Check the package for specific times as cooking times can vary. Again stir it occasionally while it cooks.

While the pasta cooks:

In a small bowl beat the eggs and egg yolk together with a fork until well blended.

Stir in about half of the grated pecorino cheese and a hearty amount of freshly ground pepper and set the bowl aside.

As soon as the pasta is done:

Remove about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside. This is just in case we need a little more moisture in the pasta to make the sauce creamy.  You may not need it at all – but it will be there if you do.

From here on timing is key. You need the pasta to retain its heat as that is what will cook the eggs.  So working quickly is to your advantage. 

Drain and then quickly place the pasta into the pan with the still warm pancetta and rendered fat, tossing the pasta to coat it. No heat under the pan is needed at this point so leave the burner off.  And, note that the pasta can still be a little damp when you add it to the frying pan, it does not need to be completely dry. Basically drain it in a colander, give it a shake or two then place it immediately into the frying pan and begin tossing it in the oil. 

Quickly stir in the egg mixture and continue tossing the pasta to coat it evenly. The heat from the pasta will thicken the yolks and cook the eggs to a creamy consistency.   

If the pasta seems too dry then add a splash of the reserved cooking water and continue tossing. You should end up with a creamy sauce that clings to the pasta.

Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, sprinkle the remaining Romano cheese on top and add a few more grinds of black pepper, then serve immediately.

            Tip: You can warm your serving bowl by placing the colander you’re going to drain the pasta in, inside the bowl. Drain the pasta so the water warms the bowl.  Leave the hot water in the serving bowl until your ready to transfer the finished pasta into it, then dump out the water, lightly dry the bowl, and fill it with the pasta. 

Riley waiting patiently… because he knows there is bacon!