Carbonara sauce is a classic.
It’s also a much-cooked classic in my kitchen.
In fact, I was so obsessed with finding my personal right mixture of creaminess, saltiness and bite for this dish that there was a year in the early 2000s where I had Carbonara three times a week for several months. No kidding. I love this sauce, and I need it to be perfect – not too dry, not too runny (which is far worse than dry), not too salty.
Of all my recipes, this may have the largest history with me. Since I worked on it for so long, it always comes with a measure of pride for me. Also, it tastes great, it’s rather inexpensive and it comes together in 15 minutes. What more could one possibly want? (fine, if you’re looking for low carbs or low calories or lots of vegetables, this is definitely not your dish. You can replace part of the pasta with courgette strings, though)
Since it is such an important recipe for me, I would have posted it years ago, but I was never happy with the photos. I still am not happy with my photos – they never manage to depict the creamy temptation that is a plate of Carbonara fresh from the pan. But I’ve simply run out of patience. Should I manage to take pictures someday that actually do this dish justice, I will expand this post.
Since Carbonara (literally, Charburner’s Sauce), although apparently created in this form only in the mid-twentieth century (not counting much earlier Latium recipes of the cacio e pepe kind) is such an iconic recipe of Italian pasta cuisine, there are many “one and only” ways to approach it.The authenticity wars do already start with the ingredients: Cream, yes or no (many Italians will say no, but not all of them)? Parmigiano or pecorino? Onions, yes or no? Does it have to be pancetta? Only the yolk or the whole egg? – The only thing everyone seems to agree on are the need for bacon, egg and cheese.
Below you will find my personal way of Carbonara (yes, it is a question of near religious proportions), which means cream yes, bacon as you like it, no onions, full egg.
It may not be your way. It may not be your idea of authentic. I can only claim an Italian grandmother and the approval of guests from various nationalities (including Italians, and a Spaniard who used to hate Carbonara before mine), but as always, taste is only in the eye of beholder. Or on the tongue of the dinner guest.
Ingredients (feeds 2):
- 200g good spaghetti or spaghettoni, the kind that need at least 11 minutes of cooking time (no spaghettini – the sauce needs a solid pasta to cling to!)
- 2 eggs (medium)
- 75g bacon (more or less, depending on your taste). For me, it doesn’t have to be pancetta.
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- real cream (30%), the kind you also use for whipped cream, ca. 100ml, depending on the size of the eggs.
- parmigiano/Parmesan cheese, about 60g, possibly more
- 2-3 tbsp. fresh, chopped parsley
- salt, fresly ground black pepper, freshly ground nutmeg
- Set up a large pot of salted water to boil the pasta and cook as per instructions.
- Meanwhile, chop the bacon into small dice.
- Heat up the olive oil in a large pan.
- Mince the clove of garlic (garlic press or chopping it into very small bits with a knife).
- In the pan, gently simmer the garlic for a few seconds, until fragrant. Medium to low heat will do, no browing allowed.
- Add the bacon bits and gently fry them until the whilte parts begin to turn transparent. A slight crispiness is okay, but be careful not to burn the garlic. This doesn’t take more than a minute or two, depending on your stove.
- Turn off the heat under the pan but leave the pan in place (not sure how this works with gas stoves, but the pan heat should take care of it) and add a small splash (about a tsp.) of the starch-loaded pasta cooking water to stop the frying process.
- In a tall mixing cup, crack open the eggs, add 4 tbsp. parmigiano cheese and add cream until you’ve got 200ml of liquid. (6 2/3 fl.oz.) This relation is essential and dictates the creaminess of your final dish. If you eat bigger pasta rations, take a larger egg and some more cream and 1/2 to 1 additional tbsp. of parmigiano (in my gym heyday when I was going for buff, my rations used to be 145g of pasta, which need 125ml of sauce in this recipe – I mentioned that I am somewhat obsessive when it comes to Carbonara, right?).
- Season the mixture in the mixing cup with salt (not too much, the bacon is salty and pancetta is extra salty), freshly ground black pepper and a few dashes of freshly ground nutmeg. Do not omit the nutmeg, it is vital for the taste balance. And don’t use that powder that comes in a jar – fresh nutmeg is cheap and holds out just about forever.
- Blend the mixture with a fork until the egg can’t be told apart in white and yellow any longer. Set aside.
- When the spaghetti are done cooking, drain them. And drain them well. Nothing ruins a Carbonara quicker than excess cooking water in the pan, a mistake I have made several times during the genesis of this recipe. Drain, but do NOT pour cold water over the pasta. You need the heat of the pasta to cook the egg two steps further down.
- Dump the drained pasta back in the pan. If you have a gas stove or an induction plate where the heat is completely gone by now, you may have to turn on the heat on the lowest setting for a bit.
- Now, time is of essence. You depend on the pasta being hot, so work quickly. First, add the choppd parsley (in a pinch and dire winter times, frozen (not dried!) will do, but fresh realy tastes so, so much better) and stir and turn, so that you have an even garlic-oil-bacon-parsley ration among the pasta.
- Give the sauce in the mixing cup another twirl with the fork if it has been sitting there for more than 4 minutes. Pour the mixture over the pasta and stir in quickly, using a spoon and a fork, or a fork and a spatula. Time is still of essence. Depending on your pan, oven and pasta, this should take between 20 seconds and half a minute, sometimes a little longer. The sauce consistency has to be thick and creamy, but not dry, and without the egg dissolving into crumbly knots (still, crumbly knots are preferable to a runny sauce and free liquid at the bottom of the pan – that ruins the dish. Int hat case, employ Carbonara Emergency Protocol B: leave on low heat until liquid dissipates and add more parmigiano cheese). When the egg is just at the perfect point beyond liquid, but still before solidifying fully, serve immediately (if possibly, in pre-warmed pasta plates – just pour the cooking water over them when you drain the pasta and let them sit like that for a while). Top with additional parmigiano cheese.
- Dig in!