My other half is Italian. I’ll admit I have a warped sense of humour, but it affords me much amusement that an open-minded philosopher (him) is so conservatore when it comes to Italian food. 60% of Italian restaurant menus in the U.K. are illegale. Apparently, no self-respecting Italian would pair chicken with pasta or use anything other than pancetta, eggs, parmesan and a generous sprinkling of black pepper in a carbonara. I’ve never been a fan of the creamy concoctions they serve in most restaurants outside Italy, but I was pleasantly surprised by the intense pepperiness of the version he dished up.
The cloying richness of the eggs and cheese was offset by the pungency of the peppercorns, which was perfectly balanced with the sharpness of the cheese, saltiness and faint herbal sweetness from the cured meat and nuttiness of the pasta. In a word: delicious.
Cream should never be added to a carbonara. I understand that the rich creamy consistency for which carbonara is loved is tricky to master using just eggs, which can end up scrambled if the heat is too high. But as they say, practise makes perfect. Adding a splash of cream may guarantee you that gratifying creaminess, but it smothers the other flavours in the dish so it is a mere shadow of its former glory. I’m not saying that you can’t indulge in a plate of spaghetti with fried bacon and cream if that’s what you’re craving – just please don’t call it a carbonara.
Even amongst the purists there are many nuances to achieving the perfect carbonara. For starters you need to use the right bacon. Pancetta is acceptable, but the depth of flavour is far superior if you can source guanciale. Literally meaning ‘jaw’, this delicately textured cut from the pork cheek or jowls is cured with salt, sugar, pepper and thyme. The cubes should be fried in a splash of olive oil until their edges start to colour, but the final degree of crispness is a matter of personal taste.
Cheese-wise it should be 100% Pecorino Romano; a hard sheep cheese with a saltier, tangier flavour than the more familiar nuttier Parmigiano Reggiano.
Then the argument turns to the eggs; whole eggs, whole eggs with a couple of yolks added for extra richness, or just yolks for an even more sumptuous, velvety sauce? There is a noticeable difference between a carbonara made with guanciale, Pecorino and egg yolks and one made with pancetta, parmesan and whole eggs, but the joy of cooking is that you can decide for yourself if going the extra mile to source the authentic flavours is worth it.
RECIPE: THE PERFECT CARBONARA
Serves 4-6 (depending on how hungry you are)
500g of bucatini or spaghetti
100g of finely diced guanciale (pancetta can be substituted)
3 egg yolks or 2 whole eggs beaten
100g of finely grated Pecorino Romano (plus extra for sprinkling)
An exceedingly generous twist of freshly ground black peppercorns
A sprinkling of sea salt
A splash of olive oil
INSTRUCTIONS: Fry the guanciale cubes in a splash of olive oil until the desired crispiness is reached. Add the pasta and a generous handful of salt to a large saucepan of boiling water. Whisk together the eggs (use egg yolks for a richer sauce or whole eggs for a lighter version), cheese, pepper and salt and keep aside until the pasta is cooked. Now comes the tricky bit as you need to work quickly. When the pasta is cooked to ‘al dente’ perfection, drain it reserving a ladleful of the cooking liquor. Immediately toss the steaming pasta in the pan with the guanciale and stir in the eggy mixture. Add a ladleful of the starchy cooking water of the sauce is too thick. It is important that only the residual heat of the pasta cooks the eggs – or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. Serve straight away with a generous sprinkling of Pecorino, a full-bodied red and enjoy…
The origins of this sumptuous dish are as hotly contested as the recipe. Carbonaro is Italian for ‘charcoal burner’ and as coarsely ground pepper resembles coal flakes, rumour credits its invention to the charcoal burners in the Apennine Mountains near Rome. It is also attributed to the Carbonari, a secret society of revolutionaries that vied for the unification of Italy in the 19th century, though this is probably just in the name. Another anecdote is that the dish was created in Rome after the Second World War when the local townsfolk got creative with the military rations of bacon and powdered eggs supplied by the U.S. Army. Some say it evolved from a peasant dish called unto e uovo (literally grease and egg), which would be my guess, though pepper was an expensive spice in those days. Though, whatever its roots, pasta alla carbonara remains to this day one of the most popular choices on a restaurant menu.