Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla carbonara is basically “bacon and eggs” spaghetti. It is a classic Roman dish that is quite popular in Italy as a “hangover lunch” after a late and boozy night out. It is very quick and easy to prepare, and is very tasty and satisfying.

Fortunately for me, I had a bit of a hangover this morning, so it was a perfect time to make spaghetti alla carbonara. Because of my recent fascination with rustic and classic Italian food, which was bolstered by the trip Martine and I took to Italy last May, I happened to have all of the ingredients on hand. (I cannot imagine being without a constant supply of pancetta, Parmesano Reggiano cheese, and pecorino cheese.)

Classic spaghetti alla carbonara calls for guanciale, which is pretty similar to pancetta except that it is made from the pig’s jowls instead of its belly. Unfortunately, guanciale is really hard to find in North America. Not a problem, as pancetta is widely available and only the most discriminating Roman would ever notice the difference.

So use pancetta and don’t worry about it. In a pinch you can even use good ol’ regular bacon, but preferably not smoked and free of “maple” and other artificial flavors. (Tip: find a good Italian butcher and order 500 grams of thinly sliced pancetta. When you get home, divide it into five flat packages wrapped in wax paper, then slip the packages into zippered freezer bags and pop in the freezer. Voila! 100 gram portions of pancetta whenever you want it.)

Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara (for two)
Ingredients:

  • 70-100 grams of sliced pancetta, cut into smallish pieces
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*)
  • 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romana cheese (more if you’re using a fine microplane grater*)
  • 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk (ideally, eggs should be at room temperature)
  • 200 grams of spaghetti
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Method:

  1. Fry the pancetta in the olive oil over medium-low heat until it is nice and golden and starting to get crispy. (Frying low and slow renders off more fat and makes it crispier without burning.)
  2. Mix the egg and egg yolk in a small bowl with a tablespoon or two of water (you don’t have to beat it like crazy, just mix it up a bit).
  3. Mix 3/4 of the cheese in with the eggs.
  4. Boil the pasta until it is al dente.
  5. When the pasta is ready, strain it in a colander, then dump it back into the pot, reserving a bit of the pasta cooking water.
    (Tip: let the pot cool for a minute before you put the pasta back into it: you want it warm but not blazing hot. Rinse with a tiny bit of cool water if necessary. Optionally, put the pasta in a warmed bowl instead.)
  6. Toss the egg-cheese mix into the hot pasta and stir it up so the heat of the pasta cooks the egg and everything gets nicely integrated.
  7. Scratch in a lot of freshly ground pepper. If the sauce is on the dry side, add a few drops of pasta cooking water to loosen it up (just a bit!). Then add the pancetta along with some or all of the pan drippings (depending on how much saturated fat you are comfortable with**) and toss.
  8. When everything is sufficiently mixed, divide into warm bowls and top with the rest of the cheese. (No salt is needed – between the pancetta and the cheeses, it’s plenty salty.)

Enjoy!

* When you use a fine microplane grater (the kind that’s also use for zesting) you get a much higher apparent volume of cheese per gram because there’s a lot more air mixed in. If using such a grater, you’ll want a loose cup of each kind of cheese.  (Next time I make this dish I’ll try to remember to weigh the cheese, which will give a much better idea of the appropriate amount.)

** While I do not want to encourage unhealthy eating, I do encourage you to add at least some of the drippings because it is packed with flavor. I use home-made pancetta which is fairly lean and very flavorful, so I don’t feel so bad about adding most of the drippings (noting that some of it is olive oil). If you’re using particularly fatty pancetta, you might want to add less.

[Note that I updated this recipe on January 31, 2010. The main difference is that the cheese should be added to the egg mix, which was prompted by the last comment on this post and backed up by extensive research (yum!). Other differences include the notes about the quantity of cheese and the note about adding drippings.]