Feb 11 2007

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 and immediately dump it back into the pot.
  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. Let it sit for about a minute, then scratch in a lot of freshly ground pepper, and 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.]

Categorized under Food and Drink,Recipes

11 comments so far

11 Comments on “Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara”

  1. Kate M.on 11 Feb 2007 at 9:55 pm

    I’ve read that spag alla carb was invented toward the end of WWII when Allied soldiers traded bacon and egg rations to the Italians they’d just liberated. No recipe like it appears in La Buona Cucina, according to the Wikipedia.

  2. Angeloon 11 Feb 2007 at 10:02 pm

    Wow, that looks really good! Thanks for the recipe.

  3. DAVEon 11 Feb 2007 at 11:01 pm

    A Classic.

    The way I learnt it was to put the eggs in last and then serve. Anywho, a great tasting dish.

  4. blorkon 12 Feb 2007 at 12:16 am

    There are always a lot of stories and variations with classic dishes like this. Kate, my information (which isn’t necessarily any more reliable than yours) is that according to Roman folklore, it was introduced to Rome by charcoal sellers from Abruzzo. Hence the name “carbonara” (the charcoal seller’s wife).

    Dave, I’ve seen it done that way too. Six of one, half dozen of the other. Mario Batali’s recipe uses just the egg whites and then for each serving he makes a nest in the middle and drops in a whole yolk. I prefer mixing it in early, while the pasta is still very hot.

  5. Billon 12 Feb 2007 at 9:34 am

    I’ve never done the extra yolk (must try that!), but otherwise that’s pretty much my recipe. (Though I thought I was doing something wrong by using thinly sliced pancetta rather than something a little more chunky.)

    Why must restaurants always use cream?

    I trust you’ve read “Heat”? That set me off on a long stretch of concocting Bolognese-style ragus, which hasn’t ended yet. (Next: venison ragu.)

  6. blorkon 12 Feb 2007 at 9:43 am

    Bill, I’m in the middle of “Heat” right now — the ragù festivities start next week. ;-)

    I don’t know why some restaurants use cream. Possibly as a short-cut – maybe it’s easier than using an extra egg yolk, or something like that. Worst still is putting peas in it!

    Some people use diced pancetta, but I prefer it thinly sliced. That’s also what I use when I make buccatini all’Amatriciana. In that case, I use smaller pieces and I fry it until it’s really crisp (almost burnt). I usually make more than I need and use the leftovers as bacon bits in salads.

  7. Billon 12 Feb 2007 at 10:18 am

    Mmm … all’Amatriciana is another of my favorite things to make.

    Yeah, I’m sure the cream acts as a stabilizing agent and makes the whole thing a little more foolproof. I’ve had good creamy versions but many more bad ones, and I’ve always thought it unauthentic but I’ve also seen it mentioned as authentic by people who know their stuff, too, so who knows?

    The Italians, or their self-styled spokesmen on this side of the pond, are always jerking our chains when it comes to what’s authentic and what’s not. First they’re all about the pizza, then, no, that’s an American thing, and now I think the pendulum is back, for now. Just don’t dare to take a stand on whether it’s supposed to have cheese on it. What you’re allowed to use parmesan in changes by the minute, and I can’t keep up on “never too much garlic” vs. “never garlic.” Twirling spaghetti on a spoon is the most Italian thing in the world, until it becomes fashionable, and then suddenly it’s never been heard of in Italy. Same with dunking bread in olive oil. Spaghetti became “pasta,” and then when every English speaker learned that, suddenly we’re supposed to be calling all pasta “macaroni” — macaroni and “gravy,” no less.

    (Yes, my Italian fascination is decidedly love-hate.)

  8. tbiton 12 Feb 2007 at 1:37 pm

    my traditional ala toast version involves white wine and onions. the carbonara comes from the fact that i always over fry the bacon and onions till the carbon bits are crunchy. lotsa egg, wine and cheese mixed and then tossed over the the hot pasta. then go nuts with the cracked pepper.

    and drink the rest of the bottle of wine.

    now i want pasta.

  9. [...] tu t’occupes tu du souper? N.: moi je prendrais des pâtes comme blork. Catégorie: aucune | | Laissez un [...]

  10. Gabriellaon 07 Jan 2008 at 2:27 pm

    hello, I

    have taken the plate of spaghetti, thanks, but the parmiggiano goes put with to the egg blinked not after (from Rome, Italy)

    Gabriella

    http://imagepourmesblog.unblog.fr/

  11. angie heldermanon 14 Jan 2008 at 12:47 pm

    this looks really good