Two Recipes for An Italian Classic
One of the classic Italian pasta dishes, the origins of Spaghetti (or Pasta) Carbonara are not really known. Although generally associated with the Lazio region, there are as many legends about its birth as there are variations on its preparation. Some say that it dates back to ancient Rome. Of course, nearly anything old in Italy is said to date back to ancient Rome. Since the name is derived from the Italian word for coal, carbone, or it's derivation carbonaio, meaning “coal man,” some people believe that it was first made as a hearty meal for Italian charcoal workers. Other folks maintain that the dish was originally prepared over charcoal grills. Still others suggest that it acquired its name because imaginative Italians thought that the bits of bacon and pepper in the pasta looked like bits of charcoal. It has even been suggested that Pasta Carbonara was created by or for the Carbonari, members of a secret revolutionary society founded in 19th century Italy.
Modern Carbonara theorists believe the sauce was developed during WWII to cater to American soldiers in Italy who frequently wanted bacon and eggs for breakfast. Because bacon and powdered eggs were part of a GI's Government Issue, they often bartered with the locals, who, in turn, used the ingredients to make a sauce for their ubiquitous pasta. Once the soldiers got a taste for the stuff, they brought it back to the States – and screwed it up.
The addition of cream to the recipe is an Italian-American creation. Just as in an authentic Alfredo dish, there is no cream used in the preparation of a traditional Carbonara. But since most Americans don't eat in authentic Italian restaurants, they have become accustomed to the creamed-up version served in most Italian-American eateries. With that in mind, I will present recipes for both versions.
Whichever version you choose, be careful of one thing: don't scramble the eggs! Whether you let the heat from the pasta cook the raw eggs or opt to make a cooked “sauce,” be very careful not to overmix or overcook the eggs. They can scramble very quickly and easily, totally changing the character of the dish. (That's kind of a nice way of saying you'll ruin it.) The eggs should remain fairly liquid.
And before we get into the recipes, a few comments about the ingredients. Obviously, you'll want to use the freshest eggs possible. The dish is traditionally made with either pancetta or guanciale. Good luck with guanciale at your local supermarket, but pancetta isn't that hard to find (hint: try the deli section). Otherwise, lean bacon or Canadian bacon will work well. As to the cheese component, Pecorino Romano is traditional, but Parmigiano-Reggiano is equally good. (A combination of the two is superior!) Avoid the cheese-flavored sawdust in the green can like the plague.
The American penchant for “improving” everything allows for the addition of peas, broccoli, mushrooms, or just about anything else you have lying around the kitchen, but the real deal calls for just eggs, cheese, and bacon.
First up, the real deal:
Spaghetti Carbonara Tradizionale
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup pancetta, julienne or brunoise cut
2 or 3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 lb spaghetti
3 eggs at room temperature
3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh chopped parley, to garnish
Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling water that has been aggressively salted. (At least 6 quarts of water and 2 tbsp of salt.) Cook until al dente.
As the spaghetti cooks, heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan and sauté the bacon and garlic until the bacon starts to brown. Don't allow the garlic to brown. Golden is okay, brown is not. Remove and discard the garlic. Keep the bacon and rendered drippings hot until needed.
Warm a large serving bowl and break the eggs into it. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, then mix in the cheese and season with salt and pepper.
As soon as the pasta is done, drain it quickly, reserving about 1/4 cup of cooking water. Mix the pasta into the egg mixture. Pour on the hot bacon and fat. Stir well. The heat from the pasta and bacon fat will “cook” the eggs. Add pasta water as needed to develop a sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6
Now, because one in a million or so eggs has been found to contain salmonella, there is a great deal of panic-driven concern over the use of raw eggs. And recent high profile news stories have certainly helped flog the concerns into a frenzy.
To be sure, salmonella infections are no fun. According to the USDA, most people experience diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 8 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. Additional symptoms include chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting. The symptoms usually disappear within 4 to 7 days, but they are 4 to 7 miserable days! Many people recover without treatment and may never see a doctor. However, Salmonella infections can be life-threatening to infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, and older adults, all of whom are at a higher risk for foodborne illness, as are people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, and transplant patients). So it is often wise to err on the side of caution. Since I was serving my dish to an elderly relative, I decided to go with the Americanized version, which lightly cooks the eggs before adding them to the hot pasta. I'm not sure if this method will bring the eggs up to the 160° mark recommended by the USDA for egg dishes, but from a safety standpoint it's probably better than the raw method, which actually just coagulates the eggs more than it cooks them.
So here's the version you probably get at the “Italian” place down the street:
Spaghetti Carbonara Alla Americana
1 pound uncooked spaghetti
2 tbsp olive oil
6 oz pancetta or lean bacon, julienne or brunoise cut
3 cloves garlic, cut into halves
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente.
As pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat, stir in pancetta and garlic and cook for about 4 minutes or until pancetta is light brown. Garlic should be golden and NEVER brown, as it will become bitter. Reserve 2 tablespoons of drippings in skillet with pancetta. Discard garlic and any remaining drippings. Remove from heat, but keep warm for later use.
Whisk eggs and egg yolk in a metal bowl or the top part of a double boiler. Place the bowl or top of double boiler over gently simmering water, adjusting heat to maintain a low simmer. Stir in 1/2 cup cheese, salt and pepper; add the cream and cook, stirring lightly, until sauce thickens slightly, taking care to not allow the eggs to scramble.
Drain cooked pasta, reserving about 1/4 cup of cooking water. Return pasta to the pot and, working over low heat, pour pancetta mixture over pasta; toss to coat. Stir in egg mixture. Toss to coat evenly. Add pasta water as needed to develop sauce. Remove from heat and transfer to a large, warmed serving bowl. Garnish with parsley and serve with remaining cheese.
Serves 4 to 6