It’s taken me 6 years – well, 5 years 8 months to be precise – to overcome my making pasta alla carbonara anxiety and introduce this splendid dish into my repertoire. Repertoire! Yes I know, how grand of me, please roll your eyes. For those of you who don’t know, pasta alla carbonara (the pasta is usually spaghetti but also fettuccine, rigatoni or bucatini, but we’ll come to the shape discussion later) is an Italian, most probably Roman, pasta dish based on eggs, pecorino romano, guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl) or pancetta and black pepper. Recipes and techniques vary – of course they do, this is Italy – but the basic idea is that the diced guanciale is fried in fat (olive oil or lard), then the hot pasta is dropped in the pan with the guanciale to finish the cooking for few seconds. Once the pasta is coated with the flavoursome fat of the guanciale, the pan is pulled from the flame and then the mixture of eggs, cheese and black pepper is combined with the hot pasta away from the fire, thus avoiding to cook the egg that must remain liquid. Adding the egg mixture to the hot pasta away from the heat means it thickens (but doesn’t scramble) and transforms – I think the correct verb is coagulate but that’s such a disturbing word – into a subtle creamy sauce. A well made carbonara is a quite delicious thing.
Now you may well be wondering what all my fuss was about, I mean really! Five years, 8 months to fry a bit of pig cheek, whisk up a couple of eggs, grate some cheese and colgate. No, that’s the toothpaste, I mean coagulate. Let me explain! It took me four years to even eat a plate of carbonara never mind make one. My first 48 months in Rome were spent trying to overcome PBCSD – Post Bad Carbonara Stress Disorder resulting from several bad experiences in England involving vast mounds of overcooked spaghetti, cream, bad bechamel sauce, mushrooms, scrambled eggs and on one especially unfortunate occasion, sausage. Once in Rome I quickly realised that real pasta alla carbonara was another thing entirely from the horrors I’d encountered, but the hangover persisted. My Italian friends championed their favourite plate, rolled their eyes at my stories and urged me to leap. Many a handsome carbonara was ordered in my presence. But rather like my ten-year aversion to Martini – the consequence of having sunk a bottle through a straw in Rothamstead park with naughty Pippa Williams at the age of 14 – my carbonara hangover persevered.
It finally passed sometime in March 2009, at the trattoria Il Bucatino, the one that occupies the bottom right hand corner of our building and provides a rowdy kitchen soundtrack to our life – I particularly like the bouts of heavy blaspheming that erupt every now and then. In retrospect it was hardly the greatest carbonara, but at the time it seemed the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten, divine after all the previous horror. It was a surprisingly understated dinner but a rather pleasing one; a bowl of al dente spaghetti dotted with guanciale and bound by a creamy coat – we are talking spring jacket here not heavy winter beast – of eggs, pecorino romano and plenty of black pepper. I was hooked.
For the following 6 months I struggled to order little else but pasta alla carbonara and thus – as is often the case in Italy – my choice of pasta, along with that of my dining companions dictated the culinary conversation that accompanied dinner. While I ate plate after plate, we invariably discussed the best way to make a carbonara. Spaghetti or short pasta (which some people prefer – saying it holds the creamy sauce better) ? Guanciale or pancetta? (cue fist shaking) How many eggs? Whole eggs or just the yolk? Pecorino romano, parmesan or (cue outraged face and sarcastic laughter from across the table) a mixture of both? And then of course there was lenghy discussion about the moment, the crucial moment, the moment you pull the pan from the flame and add the egg and cheese to the pasta and guanciale. Then there were endless discussions about the stir, the fold, the flick of the wrist needed to combine the eggs and cheese with the pasta, the moment you add the slug of the pasta cooking water – the pasta water you have judiciously set aside – to the pan, the slug that will loosen the straw coloured sauce into a soft creamy coat.
I listened attentively to the endless discussions. As time went on I even ventured to join in, contributing the occasional opinion and gasp. But rather like pastry, meringue and custard, all the carbonara talk, the discussions about crucial moments, flicks of wrists and coagulating brought on acutemaking pasta alla carbonara anxiety and a kind of making carbonara paralysis.
Until a month ago that is.
It was a Tuesday I think, in early November, an extremely grey day, one of the many when it felt as though the rain would never stop and I was in the mood for a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara. Having asked a carbonara devoted friend of mine where she thought we could find the best carbonara in Rome, I found myself sitting in the back room of a bowling club – ‘Bocciofila‘ – in San Paolo.It was all very surreal. The club, it’s kitchen and slightly bizarre but extremely comfortable and strangely familiar dining room are run by Italia and Augusto, the nicest couple you could hope to meet, who, as well as looking after the club, prepare an excellent lunch and occasional dinner for club members and anyone else lucky enough to be introduced or invited into this small trophy lined dining room. We rolled up, introductions and orders were made, then Italia disappeared into the kitchen. She reappeared 20 minutes later (the time it took for the pasta water to come back to the boil and the pasta to cook) with two dishes of rigatoni alla carbonara: steaming bowls of al dente pasta studded with glistening chunks of guanciale and bound by a creamy seductive coat of eggs, piquant pecorino romano and a courageous quantity of black pepper. Fantastic.
For such a simple dish with just four ingredients, pasta alla carbonara varies impressively from cook to cook, plate to plate. The plate Italia produced was particularly robust, there was generous quantity of guanciale, fried until translucent and crisp at the edges. There was masses of pecorino and an extremely bold quantity of black pepper. The pasta was short – Rigatoni, and it worked beautifully, the sauce clinging to fluted tubes which in turn provided a perfect hiding place for the cubes of guanciale. As we mopped up the end of the sauce with bread, Italia sat at our table and our clean plates and content faces made compliments. Then she started talking – Italia likes talking – and before long I made my confession. Then in the backroom of a Boules club somewhere round the back of San Paolo, on a wet Tuesday afternoon, excellent pasta, rough wine, Italia’s gentle (slightly cheeky) smile, her simple instructions, her advice (practice, practice, practice) and her demonstrative gesticulating meant my making pasta alla carbonara anxiety melted away.
A couple of days later I laid out my ingredients. I diced and then fried the guanciale, and then while the pasta was rolling around I beat the eggs and cheese and I was bold with the pepper grinder. Once the pasta was ready, I scooped out the crucial cupful of pasta cooking water and set it aside before adding the pasta to the guanciale – sizzle. Then, remembering Italia and her gesticulating, I pulled the hot frying pan from the heat, added the egg and cheese mixture and stirred. I watched as the eggs mixture thickened, a slug of water, a moment of panic – it all looked rather wet, a sigh of relief as the mixture thickened again. More black pepper, taste, more cheese, taste. Divide between plates. Eat. It was good. Improvements would be made , flicks perfected, but for a first attempt I was content.
Being a slightly obsessive sort and with a post long overdue, I’ve been making pasta alla carbonara two or three times a week for the last month. I’ve experimented, trying both pancetta and guanciale. I’ve dabbled with both pecorino and parmesan, and dare I say it, a mixture of both. I’ve tried different combinations of eggs ; 2 eggs, 1 yolk; 1 egg, 2 yolks; just yolks. But most importantly I’ve practiced the crucial moment – paying particular attention to how hot the frying pan is when I pull it from the heat, how I stir the egg and cheese into the pasta, how much pasta water I need to add. I’ve made notes. I’ve wondered what an earth my fuss and anxiety was all about. I’m getting better.
This recipe is the sum of all the above; all the plates I’ve eaten over the last 2 years, Italia’s recipe, my friend Flavio’s advice – the addition of the extra egg yolk, lots of experimenting and my particular taste I suppose. I should note that I’m a real fan of gunaciale in carbonara, I love its deeply flavoured fat, but many of my friends prefer pancetta. I like a mix of parmesan and pecorino (gasp) but I’m just as happy with all pecorino. I did enjoy a carbonara made with just egg yolks, but found it a little rich. 2 whole eggs and 1 extra yolk in a carbonara for 2 people is my preference. And I reckon my slug of pasta water is about 50ml.
I suggest you use this recipe as a guide, a template if you like, with which you can begin your own pasta alla carbonara adventures.
Pasta alla carbonara
- 500g spaghetti or rigatoni
- 150g guanciale or pancetta
- 4 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
- 50g grated pecorino romano
- 50g grated parmesan
- freshly coarsely ground black pepper
Bring a large pan of water to a fast boil – salt the water modestly as the cheese makes this a relatively salty pasta. Add the pasta.
Cut the guanciale or pancetta into small dice. Warm the oil in a deep 12-inch heavy based frying pan (skillet) and then cook the diced guanciale or pancetta over moderate heat, stirring, until first the fat begins to render and then it is just starting to turn slightly golden and crisp at the edges.
While pasta is cooking, whisk together eggs, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino romano, plenty of coarsely ground black pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small bowl.
Scoop of a large cup of water cooking water and set it aside and the drain the pasta then toss with tongs over moderate heat until coated. Remove from heat and add egg mixture, tossing to combine, add a slug of the cooking water to loosen the sauce and stir again . Serve immediately with more cheese, either pecorino or parmesan.
I am sorry to have been away for so long, I’ve missed you and thank you for all your nice messages. I think my absence deserves a post – with a recipe of course. That post is coming.
Last thing, Apple with parmesan and frutta mostarda. I am obsessed.