This week’s dish is a classic. Pretty much everyone has heard of if not eaten spaghetti alla carbonara, so no novelties today. But have you eaten a genuine carbonara? Or was it like the one I ate in Budapest in 1991, a sort of fantasy with cream, peas, mushrooms and quite possibly rat’s arses too? Now while it is true that there are many variations to the “genuine” version of the recipe, they are more of a theological nature (Are cherubim fatter than seraphim? Is parmigiano better than pecorino?) rather than esoteric (My grandmother always swore that carbonara is made with chicken livers, rat’s arses, yoghurt and grated nutmeg!). So if you more or less follow the recipe below, you won’t go far wrong and you’ll enjoy an as-close-as-dammit authentic plate of spaghetti alla carbonara.
I myself vary the recipe from time to time. I may not have guanciale, for example, and resort to pancetta, a perfectly acceptable substitute. My partner is not a fan of pecorino romano, and although mixing it with parmigiano helps to tone down the stronger, saltier flavour of the pecorino, she prefers her carbonara with parmigiano reggiano alone. So I often have to tag along. Mind you, bastard that I am, I often make it with both anyway and she doesn’t seem to notice…
Talking of pecorino romano, which means “Roman sheep’s cheese”, the vast majority of it is not actually made in or around Rome. It used to be, but for some reason best known to themselves, the city authorities banned Roman cheesemakers (clearly no longer blessèd) from adding salt to their produce back in the 1880s, not long after Rome became part of Italy (and its capital to boot). So most of them moved production over to Sardinia, a sort of Mediterranean New Zealand with a sheep-human ration of something like 3 to 1. To this day, most pecorino romano is still made there. Parmigiano reggiano, by the way, is made from cow milk, which explains its milder flavour.
Another variation is the business with the pasta water described below. It can actually be eliminated, though doing so will result in a somewhat less creamy, less well-amalgamated dish. If you wish to do away with this procedure, then after draining your pasta put it into the frying pan with the guanciale and mix well. Then add the egg which you will have previously beaten with all the cheese in it. Stir heartily to coat and serve immediately. There’s a nice article about the origins of this dish (including another recipe version, similar to the quick version just outlined above) here.
A nice alternative to plain old spaghetti (though it is by far the best choice here), is spaghetti alla chitarra, square-shaped spaghetti made with flour and eggs and not flour and water like normal pasta. It also goes by the name of tonnarelli or troccoli. You can also try it with bucatini, an immensly entertaining form of pasta. Basically it’s like spaghetti, except a bit fatter and with a hole in the middle, which ensures whistling all around the table while people are sucking it up. The kids will love it, particularly those who love getting pasta sauce all over their faces.
So here goes for my traditional spaghetti alla carbonara. Enjoy it!
- 120 g guanciale (about 4 thickish slices)
- 80 g grated pecorino romano, or parmigiano reggiano or better still mixed
- 3 egg yolks
- 1 whole egg
- 400 g spaghetti
- extra virgin olive oil
Guanciale is best for this dish, but is not always available. You can quite happily use pancetta in its place, better still if it is smoked. The first thing to do is slice up your guanciale. Do this by first slicing it lengthwise and then crosswise into thin strips – almost like julienning it. Then take a large frying pan (large enough to hold all the pasta), add a squirt of oil, throw in your guanciale and a few twists of the pepper mill and let it bubble away on a lowish heat until it’s nice and crispy. That’s nice and crispy, not rock solid and black, OK? It should still show some signs of life, by which I mean some softness.
Put your large pasta pot on the heat and bring it to the boil (fill it with water first!).
Meanwhile, take a nice big bowl and pop your egg yolks and the whole egg (minus shell obviously) into it. I care not what you do with the remaining egg whites, but there’s a nice simple recipe for yummy coconut biscuits here which requires, oh look, 3 egg whites! Anyway, once the eggs are in the bowl, beat them soundly (so they’ll remember it) with your handy egg-beater, or a fork if you haven’t got one, cheapskate.
Next, add half the cheese and mix in well. Throw in a couple of pinches of salt (not too much – the guanciale/pancetta are salty enough on their own) and rather a lot of freshly-ground black pepper (10 turns or so if the pepper mill is in good nick, more if it’s on its last legs). Mix in the salt and pepper.
Your water will probably be boiling now, or nearly, so chuck in a good handful of coarse sea salt, followed by the spaghetti. Cook as described elsewhere on this site – and don’t forget to give it a stir every now and then. Remember, dire things will happen if you don’t, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!
After a couple of minutes or so, add a ladleful of the pasta water to the guanciale in the pan. Also keep a ladleful or two aside somewhere, in a bowl or cup. When the pasta is about 2 minutes away from being cooked (for example, at 6 minutes if the packet says 8 minutes), drain it quickly – it doesn’t need to be thoroughly drained. Then bung it into the frying pan on top of the guanciale and add a ladeful of that water you put aside. You did put it aside, didn’t you? Ah, good. Now then, mix the pasta in with the guanciale, keeping it moving over the heat. Then add the egg mixture (maybe give it a quick beat first as it will have settled) and mix it into the pasta. Turn off the heat under the pan immediately, add the remaining cheese and another bit of the pasta water. Mix it all well and as soon as the sauce seems smooth (it should be neither runny nor solid), serve it up with a good sprinkle of black pepper.
Spagheti alla carbonara is a tricky dish to match wine to, because of the egg. If you prefer a white, go for something quite acid (Frascati Superiore from Lazio or a good Trebbiano from Umbria). Red is also possible, but go for fruit rather than tannin.