Six Years.

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

Serves 4

  • 500g spaghetti or rigatoni
  • 150g guanciale or pancetta
  • 4 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
  • 50g grated pecorino romano
  • 50g grated parmesan
  • salt
  • 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.


Filed under Eggs, food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, recipes

89 responses to “Six Years.

  1. I love mostarda! And guanciale. And carbonara!

    Great post, love the photos.

  2. miriam dema

    i dream of mostarda! well, not quite but of all the things discovered on a trip to the Florence Mercato Centrale it was mostarda from Perini that was the most delicious!

    i have purchased jar after jar of things claiming to be the sweet spicy fresh fruit spread that we piled on cheese, fruit, meat and practically anything we could put it on and nothing has tasted like that did. everything i’ve tried has been muddy, flat and sometimes funky flavored, nothing like the spicy cherry mostarda from Perini!

    i even smuggled some back with us in a jar that lasted far to short. alas, even with California being a bastion of import goods and amazing artisan goods nothing has been quite up to that delicious mustarda.

    • rachel

      We both dream of mostarda! I only discovered mostarda quite recently after a trip to Cremona and like you, I fell head over heels – yes yes boiled meat, fruit, cheese….

  3. susan mazzucco

    looking forward to visiting your market next month, and trying out your carbonara…..thanks for posting!

    • rachel

      Next month – Hooray, I am excited for you….Da felice in Via mastro Giorgio in Testaccio does a fantastic carbonara too

      • sue

        thanks for the reminder of da felice! i have never been there. also looking forward to visiting passi……..happy new year!

  4. TD

    This was such a delightful story. Your life and your recipes both seem lyrical. I was not one of those who left you nice msgs, but I had been wondering if you would ever be back to writing on this blog.
    I doubt I will be trying this recipe any time soon. I have an aversion to most things with uncooked eggs in them. But reading this post has brought me closest to even consider trying it.

    • rachel

      Thank you TD.
      I suppose a raw egg aversion is a bit of a hurdle on this one (I understand aversions all too well) but glad you liked the post. Spaghetti all’Amatriciana next so no more raw eggs…

  5. Oh, girl. So, question…we’ve had a lovely package of pork jowl from a local farm in our freezer…it’s been there for weeks. Okay, I lie…months. I just can’t decide what to do with it! I wish I could do this…but it’s plain jowl, not guanciale. Could I try to cure it myself? Or…hmmm…maybe that’s a bad idea. Regardless, I love reading your words, as always 🙂

    • rachel

      I fully encourage a bit of home curing – which is pretty funny coming from someone who has never cured anything in her life. Let me know if you do… Hope you are well x

  6. Maybe you are the perfect combination of Marcella and Nigella!

    This looks delicious; I want some right this minute. I just walked home from an Anonymous 4 concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is freezing out. Does anything sound better than this? I don’t think so.

    Because we don’t use metric measurements here, I don’t know what your grams “look like,” but I weigh everything so it works out. And you don’t seem to sneak British Imperial measurements in that I’ve noticed so far. But I do have an English measuring cup in the cupboard just in case.

    Glad to see you back. Happy hols.

    • rachel

      That is such a nice compliment…
      It is really really cold here too (although no Metropolitan Museum of Art unfortunately) and carbonara is pretty perfect for such days. As for the wierd British measurements – I have been known – even though they confuse the hell out of me too, and I grew up with them. Happy holidays to you too Vic.

  7. Ellen

    i have no preference on pasta shape, but guanciale, super fresh, richly colored eggs, pecorino and lots of pepper makes for the best carbonara. try toasting the whole black pepper kernels before grinding. it makes the flavor really pop! great for carbonara or cacio e pepe or any other dish that really requires it. thanks for this beautiful post.

  8. berzy

    Congratulations! I was very excited to see a new post from you (it really did seem like forever) and I’m proud of your success!

    • rachel

      Thanks. It seemed like forever to me too, I am ever so glad to be back. And yes. Horray for overcoming kitchen anxiety, next up, custard!

  9. YAY! you’re back!! Have a serious craving for some carbonara now, it sounds much more appetising with pasta than spaghetti

    • rachel

      I am a real convert to short pasta with carbonara. Having said that, I had a fantastic spaghetti alla carbonara the other day at a funny little trattoria I had previously ignored. Glad to be back rach from rach.

  10. Welcome back. Ah carbonara, or as my husband likes to call it Pasta with Scrambled Egg. I am the ultimate English Barbarian! x

  11. laura

    Ben tornata! I really missed you. And thank you for another great post!

  12. Lindy Leech

    I’m so glad you’re back – I’ve missed your posts. I started making variations of carbonara in my early teens when my mother bought a cookbook with a good recipe for it (thank heavens it called for no cream or peas or any of the other odd things people add). The cookbook is long gone, but the recipe in my head is now tailored to whatever the moment brings.

  13. Welcome back! I’ve seen many a bad carbonara but not many good ones. As with a previous poster, this may be the article that nudges me towards trying it…

  14. …or grana padano. I love this dish with grana. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted such a thing…

  15. You’re back! I’ve made many a crappy carbonara, and that is mostly due to the fact that I don’t often have guanciale or pancetta around…and then it’s just eggs and cheese, but you know what? Still pretty tasty. So glad you’ve gotten over your carbonara fears.

    • rachel

      C – I’m sure it does taste good and I hope I don’t sound like a boring purist beacause I’m not. I am the master of irrational kitchen fears and anxiety so it feels good to have overcome at least one. Next up custard.

  16. Welcome back! Funny, I was planning to make carbonara for dinner tonight. I had a similar aversion to making this dish until my lovely Roman housemate taught me how; her recipe is almost the same but only uses one whole egg per person. I was told (emphasized with an Italian waggling finger) to use only pecorino romano but I’m partial to grana padano too. Too many Brits spoil carbonara, I have a recipe book that actually tells you to scramble the eggs!

    • rachel

      I have been on the end of many a wagging Roman finger – it’s the best way to learn though. I like grana too but yes all pecorino is pretty traditional here in Rome. I am not very traditional. I love scrambled egg (on hot buttered toast with bacon) just not in my carbonara…

  17. Rach-thrilled to find your post this morning! Indeed, there are ghastly bastardizations of carbonara out in the world, but I’m happy that you’ve taken the leap to make the best—I must try it with the extra yolks. I like a combo of grated cheese as well. and the courageous amount of black pepper (love that notion)

    oddly, martinis did me in at the age of 14—and to this day I cannot enjoy them.

    • rachel

      Yes, yes, Courageuos quantity, those are my friends words, so good and so right. Martini aversion – Another thing we have in common, I love it.

  18. What a wonderful looking pasta. It seems it was worth the wait. And I understand, there are a few dishes that I would love to make, but sometimes it seems as if one has to really try to work up the nerve to get to it!

    • rachel

      True – but I must admnit I am such a kitchen drama queen and I’m not sure what took me so long on this one, as it is really quite simple. Let me know if you try !

  19. sometimes i don’t even need a recipe, after i’ve read one of your posts, i’m so satisfied already. glad you’re back!

  20. Happy to see you posting again. Love your version of the recipe; hate the heavy cream-containing version of carbonara in the states. When in Rome my favorite meals were carbonara, cacio and pepe or Amatriciana. Ah Roma.

  21. Wonderful photos. I love Italian food. Carbonara is a marvelous pasta dish.


  22. I’m so pleased you’re back, I was thinking of you on my way to work earlier this week and wondering how you were…

    I love carbonara but agree that it is usually an abomination here, thus may finally give me the courage i need to attempt it myself. Gx

  23. christineK

    I’ll be in Rome in a couple of weeks and all I’m waiting for is to eat a proper carbonara!
    A friend of mine from Naples had told me that the number of eggs would be the number of the servings minus one. But I never listened to him and I use 1 egg per serving! Next time I’ll try your version.
    Anyway , it’s really nice to see you posting again! I enjoy so much reading your posts!

    • rachel

      How exciting. So for great carbonara I suggest Da Felice in via mastro giorgio in testaccio. My friend makes carbonara like your neapolitan friend, it’s a good but not enough egg for me tip. I found you need to experiment and find out what you like. it is a really personal thing. Glad to be back and have a fantastic time here in Rome x

  24. Mary Beth at Yarn U iPhone app

    Rachel, it’s great to see you back…I don’t eat Italian often, but I like the vicarious feeling of ‘eating’ it via your blog.

  25. YEAH!!! I’m so glad your back. I look forward to your posts and they have been missed. This was just the post I needed It is freezing and rainy here. Just what we need to warm us up. Happy Holidays and I’M very excited you have returned:)B

  26. bea

    I’m so glad you are back… have been reading your blog and trying other recipes in the meantime. But yesterday tried your carbonara, and even if I have made it my way (I am italian, roman based, so…) a zillion times, yours was really a big big improvement to my usual recipe.
    Now I can try and overcome my “pasta al cacio e pepe fear”!!
    Thanks and please don’t stay away so long again 🙂

  27. You’re back! I trust you have a good excuse, young lady.

  28. oh Rachel, from Brescia (Italy):
    un blog bello e ricco di passione, e di una adorabile cucina in cui ogni oggetto e piatto sembra la tua “voce”. Grazie, fedele lettrice (e allieva).

  29. bea

    Bene! I’ll be witing for your amatriciana, then!
    happy holidays!

  30. bea

    I meant “waiting”. Anna, two years old, is on my lap so my spelling goes beserk

  31. Jim

    Late again, as usual, to read and to comment….

    I enjoy your willingness to perfect the cooking to your liking and to experiment. Too many of us, too often (I believe) feel that we have to rigidly follow someone else’s recipe. Sometimes this is ok, but sometimes it means we endlessly eat mediocre food. Your approach to cooking is refreshing….

  32. A great read. My florentine hubby and I have disagreements over how best to prepare carbonara to the point where we no longer have it together! Your post has inspired me to give carbonara another go 🙂

  33. Beautiful piece. Well worth the wait. The number of bad carbonaras (carbanari?) that have been inflicted on unsuspecting English diners is staggering. You’d have thought it wasn’t hard to do but apparently it is one of the easiest dishes to destroy in Italy’s vast culinary canon. You seem to go some way to rectifying this though, so bravo!

  34. Sounds really great Rachel! I used a lot of guanciale over Christmas and will have to buy some more to try this. Happy New Year!

  35. I first tasted Pasta alla Carbonara in the almost-winter of 1976-1977. My best friend from Canada had met me in Paris after my au-pair stints, and we had travelled by thumb, bus, and train through France and Italy, ending up in Trieste. We needed to catch a boat from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, but we had just missed one, so had no choice but to hang around and wait for the next one. and Italy was infinitely preferable to Yugoslavia. Just down the hill from our rooming house was a restaurant called Pizzeria Fabris, and that is pretty much where we waited for our ship to come in. They did a roaring business in pizzas, both eat-in and takeaway – they had a fabulous wood-fired oven in front – but their pasta was irresistible too, and their Carbonara, which we savoured (four days in a row) sitting at the front counter watching the world go by, was to die for.
    They put cream in theirs. So I do too. 🙂

    • rachel

      Hi Lynn,

      I love your carbonara tale and I imagine memories of your trip, friend and journey will be part of every carbonara you make and eat. It sounds as if you have a great recipe (I’m sorry if I came across as snippy about cream, a reacton to bad ENGLISH experiences)Thank you for such a nice message.

  36. Ciao from Brazil!
    I have had the same paura of Carbonara for even longer! I will be brave and follow your instructions… let’s see how it goes…
    Great blog!
    Pat Lyra

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  39. It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to enjoy your blog – the writing is so lovely. Thanks again for another inspiring post and lovely shots.

  40. Mark Goodstein

    I’ve had more carbonaras than I can count, having been the child of American academics who came to Rome every year. I’ve had them in restaurants, I’ve made them, and have tasted friends’ versions. When we go to Rome now, I sometimes try one, just to get a measure of the restaurant (La Quercia makes a pretty good one, for instance). In fact, 20 years ago, I made one for a woman who decided, largely on the basis of that dish, that she would marry me if I asked (I did).

    I made this one tonight and we all (there are now four of us) think this one ranks pretty high on the list. Thank you!


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  52. I wanna Try it….
    Thank you for the recipe 🙂

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