Back in the days I was looking forward the day to go out with my parents and friends to have dinner in a pizzeria. Most times we were sharing some pizza, but now and then I was going for pasta. I was hoping for a tasty pasta dish because at home I had no chance to get it, for reasons I will explain on another instance. At those times the restaurants in my native city in Greece had usually just two pasta dishes. Mostly spaghetti or penne combined with either a red or a white sauce. The red was made of tomatoes (named ‘alla napoletana’) and the white was the ‘carbonara’. I was always getting the red one, because first I like tomatoes and second the white carbonara was looking repellent, having the spaghetti swimming with pieces of bacon in a white sauce. Still, I was curious how it tastes and once I gave a try. Unfortunately I felt disgusted and couldn’t finish the plate. I couldn’t understand how people could eat it.
Growing older I’ve learnt that that was a fake carbonara. You might know already that was a common habit for cooks (rarely even in Italy) to add milk/cream in the recipe and sometimes even omitting completely the eggs. The reason for that –at least in my mind- was two fold. First, milk/cream came as an easy mean (particularly during ‘90s) to prepare white sauces in general and suddenly started appearing on many recipes. I’m not against cream per se, but addition to a particularly fatty dish like carbonara creates an overload. Second, many people were not familiar (some times even skeptical) with techniques to prepare sauces using raw eggs that undergo mild heating and they don’t solidify.
Carbonara is a typical pasta dish from the Rome region. It is offered in most trattorie in Rome, particularly in the touristic ones. It is made with the most common animal products of the wider Lazio region. Those are a fatty pork tissue and a local cheese made from sheep milk (pecorino romano). To these, eggs are added to obtain a creamy sauce and the whole dish is seasoned with pepper.
Carbonara is part of a group of typical Roman pasta dishes that center on the aforementioned local animal products. The group contains one of the most simple pasta recipes of Italy that is made of two ingredients, cheese and pepper (pasta ‘cacio e peppe’). Even though you use only two ingredients, cacio e pepe is one of the most difficult pasta dishes to cook and you need special skills to create a creamy sauce by heating solely the cheese. To this dish, if you add a source of pork fat you obtain what is called ‘pasta alla gricia’. From gricia originate the two most famous roman pasta dishes; addition of either tomatoes or eggs give rice to ‘amatriciana’ (deserves a new post at some point) and ‘carbonara’ respectively.
Traditionally the source of pork fatty meat is cured ‘guanciale’. That comes from pork cheeks (guancia=cheek in Italian). Mostly, instead of guanciale, cured pork belly (pancetta) is being used. Pancetta has more meat and less fat compared to guanciale, and thus makes it more acceptable for people that cannot stand the strong fatty taste of the latter. Also, guanciale is hard to get out of Italy.
The whole point and the difficulty on making carbonara is to obtain the necessary creaminess in the sauce. You do this by mildly heating the eggs but not cooking them; in the second instance the egg proteins will denature and subsequently coagulate and you will get scrambled eggs. Even though some egg proteins start setting already near above 60 °C, ovalbumin the main egg white protein (comprising 55% of total egg protein) denatures only at 80 °C. Thus, to slightly cook the eggs by avoiding massive solidification you don’t use direct heat. Instead, you use the heat coming from the freshly cooked pasta and additionally (if necessary) the hot steam of the pasta water.
Carbonara is commonly combined with long pasta like spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine etc, but in Rome you will find it also with short pasta like penne or rigatoni.
Here I’ve used fresh-homemade fettuccine.
Pasta alla carbonara recipe (for 1 person)
120 gr dry or 180 gr fresh pasta
80 gr guanciale or pancetta
1 egg (plus an extra yolk if you want more creamy effect)
plenty of pecorino romano (parmigiano is also acceptable, or a mixture of the two)
plenty of pepper
- Boil the pasta in good-salted water until al dente.
- In the meantime chop in stripes or cubes and heat in a pan the pancetta or guanciale with few drops of olive oil for few minutes until soften but not becoming crispy (use medium heat).
- Whisk briefly in a bowl the egg with a bit of salt, half of the cheese and half of the pepper.
- Add the cooked pork meat and mix.
- Transfer the pasta with a grabber directly to the bowl with the egg/pork meat and mix constantly. If it gets dry, add some of the pasta water and if it’s very liquidly keep mixing on top of the pot using the steam of the boiled pasta water.
- Add the rest of the cheese and pepper and keep mixing.
- Serve and enjoy!
Pasta carbonara provides a good amount of all macronutrients, carbohydrates from pasta, proteins and particularly fat from the animal products (eggs, pork fat, cheese). In that sense it’s a rather high caloric dish and thus it fits better on a cold winter day. Now that the winter is over, it ends also the carbonara period for me. Obviously I’m not looking already forward for the next winter, but when it comes I know how to enjoy again a proper carbonara!