The first time I attempted carbonara was when I saw Tom Cruise making it on the Oprah Winfrey show. He made it look so easy. Oh hi, I’m Tom Cruise and I can whisk eggs and charm Oprah at the same time. Multiple attempts, yet I could never get it right. The dish always looked like Sunday supper gone bad with clumps of egg sticking unappetizingly to stringy noodles and overcooked pancetta. Missione non è possibile. Self-preservation kept my family from continuing to request any meal with the word carbonara. Sorry Tom.
Luckily, moving to Europe meant our chances of meeting people from other European countries increased exponentially. Even luckier that some of our closest friends here happen to be Italian. And luckier still that they like to cook for us! So on a warm, sunny day they invited us over to celebrate the opening of the Parma ham and Parmesan Reggiano that they had recently hauled back from Italy….and of course a “simple meal” of spaghetti carbonara. There’s only one obvious answer to that invite.
After filling our bellies with Parma ham and wine, it was time for the carbonara. As they cooked, our Italian friends were kind enough to let me hover and pepper them with questions. In cooking, quality of ingredients count. For carbonara, I learned that timing is essential.
The recipe below has approximations for the ingredients. It’s so flexible. If you like more pancetta, add more. If you want it less creamy, add less yolk. Love cheese? Then dump in more! At the end of the day, you’ll end up with your own version of carbonara and you’ll be able to whip it up as if it’s no big deal. A simple meal shared with good friends and family.
The recipe therefore is more about technique and cadence. This was what I was missing in my first few attempts with Mr. Cruise. The order in which you cook and assemble makes all the difference. As is always my temptation, I implore you to not skip ahead to be more efficient. There will be no bonus points and you will end up with sad carbonara. Also, you must cook this recipe with passion and zeal! If you need help, watch Season 2 of Master of None on Netflix or listen to Andrea Bocelli sing La Vie En Rose.
- 2.5 oz/ 70g of diced pancetta or guanciale
- 1 T/ 15g butter
- 4 large egg yolks
- 4 oz/ 115g of grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano cheese
- 12 oz/ 375g spaghetti noodles
- olive oil
- freshly ground pepper
- Gather all the ingredients before cooking. This prevents confusion and chaos once you get started because everything about this dish is about timing.
- You might be tempted to multi-task and try to be more efficient by jumping ahead to complete other steps in this recipe. Please gently refrain from doing this. There is a cadence that ensures that the ingredients come together at the right time.
- Place butter and pancetta in pan and cook over medium low heat. It's done when it begins to smell like bacon and most of the fat has rendered. Takes about 10-15 minutes. This ensures the pancetta is cooked through and still soft but not browned. The butter also helps prevent it from browning. Set aside and let cool completely. If you don't let it cool completely, it will prematurely cook the egg.
- In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk together the egg yolks. I've found this method to be the easiest way to separate them. Season mixture with a drizzle of olive oil (approx. 1-2T), 1/2 tsp of salt, and a couple grinds of pepper. Whisk together.
- Add grated cheese to the egg mixture and stir to incorporate.
- For the pasta, bring 3 liters of water and 1tsp of salt to a boil. As soon as the water comes to a boil, add the pasta. Cook noodles based on directions or until al dente (firm to the bite).
- Right before the noodles are done, add the cooled pancetta to the egg mixture.
- Quickly drain the noodles and add the hot noodles to the egg mixture.
- Toss and coat all the noodles.
- Divide into bowls. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- Best eaten with good friends so you won't be judged for your primal grunts between bites.
- Makes 2 healthy servings for hungry people or 4 proper portions.
Very Brief History of Spaghetti Carbonara
Spaghetti Carbonara is an Italian dish orginating from Rome. There are many different versions of how carbonara came to be and seems to be no general consensus of its actual orgination outside of the location. Stories range from carbonara being a hearty dish for coal miners to American soldiers introducing powdered eggs and bacon after the war which the Italians used to creat carbonara. If you want to dive deeper, I think this blog does a great job breaking down the different hypothesis. Typically, carbonara is made with Pecorino Romano but since I was taught by our Italian friends from Parma, we used parmesan instead. I’m sure Romans would be aghast at this suggestion of altering their beloved dish but it still tastes amazing. So proceed with parmesan at your own risk.